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signs 

shall 

follow 



Serpent- 
Handling 
Believers 




And these signs shall follow them that 
believe; In my name shall they cast out 
devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 
They shall take up serpents; and if they 
drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt 
them; they shall lay hands on the sick, 
and they shall recover. 

Mark 16:17-18 




these 

signs 

shall 

follow 



Serpent- 
Handling 
Believers 



Thomas Burton 



The University of Tennessee Press / Knoxville 



Copyright © 1993 by The University of Tennessee Press / Knoxville. 
All Rights Reserved. Manufactured in the United States ot America. 
First Edition. 

Frontispiece . Services at Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs 
Following, Birchwood, Tennessee, 1947. Photograph courtesy of 
J. C. Collins. 

The papet in this hook meets the minimum requirements ot the 
American National Standard for Permanence of Paper tor Printed 
Library Materials. (ro; The binding materials have been chosen for 
strength and dutahility. 



Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data 

Burton, Thomas G. 

Serpent-handling believers / Thomas Button. — 

p. cm. 
Includes bibliographical tefetences and index. 
ISBN 0-87049-787-1 (cloth: alk. paper). 
ISBN 0-87049-788-X ( P bk.:alk. paper) 

1. Snake cults (Holiness churches) — Tennessee. 

2. Tennessee — Church history. 
I. Title. 

BX7990.H6B87 1993 
289.9— dc20 



1st ed. 



92-30409 
CIP 





Acknowledgments 


ix 




Introduction 


1 




1. 


Believers 


13 




2. 


Where and When It All Started 


32 


And 


3. 


George Hensley 


41 


these 


4. 


Reports from the Battlefield 


61 


signs 

shall 

follow 


5. 


Serpent Handlers in 
Tennessee Courts 


74 




6. 


Portraits 


88 



Contents 



Liston Pack: Out of the World's 
Black Belly, by Fred Brown 

Charles Prince: God's Hero, 
by Fred Brown 

A Snake Handler's Daughter: 
An Autobiographical Sketch, 



89 



97 



by Anna Prince 


108 


Conclusion 


126 


Appendixes 


139 


A. The Anointment: Report on 




Electroencephalograph Test, 




by Michael L. Woodruff 


139 


B. Music of the Serpent-Handling 




Service, by Scott W. Schwartz 


145 


C. The Life of George Hensley 


149 


D. Some Questions 


159 


References 


181 


Index 


205 




And 
thes 



se 



signs 

shall 

follow 



Illustrations 



Dewey Chafin, of Job, West Virginia, 1985 2 

Serpent Boxes at Foot of Pulpit in Jolo, 1988 3 

Barbara Elkins, Dominant Force in the 

Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo 4 

Lydia Elkins Hollins, Entering the Church 

of the Lord Jesus, 1988 5 

"Sign Follower" Jimmy Larr in Baxter, 

Kentucky, 1985 8 

Lydia Elkins Hollins Handling a 

Rattlesnake, 1991 9 

Services at the Church of Jesus Christ, 

Baxter, 1983 15 

Visitors at Baxter, William Hollins 

and Bruce Helton, 1983 16 

Jenette Kennedy at Jolo, 1988 1 7 

Tim McCoy Testifying before the 

Church at Jolo, 1991 17 

Visitors and Members Handling 

Serpents at Jolo Homecoming, 1991 18 

Lydia Elkins Hollins at the Organ in the 

Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo, 1 985 19 

Church of the Lord Jesus at Jolo, 1985 20 

Members of the Church of the Lord Jesus, 

Following the "Signs", 1991 21 

Tommy Coots, Placing Serpent 

On Pulpit, 1955 22 

Lue Blankenship Being Comforted 

by Her Daughter and Son-in-Law, 1991 23 

Dewey Chafin, Elder of the Church 

of the Lord Jesus, Jolo, 1991 29 

George Went Hensley, c. 1927 33 

Family Homecoming for George Hensley's 

First Wife, Amanda, 1946 34 



Illustrations • vii 



Amanda Mertila Wininger, 

George Hensley's First Wife 36 

George Hensley, about Thirty Years Old 39 

George Hensley with His Sister 

Bertha Weaver, c. 1931 42 

George Hensley with His Second Wife, 

Irene Klunzinger, c. 1927 43 

George Hensley's Granddaughter 

La Creta and His Children by Irene 47 

Lewis Ford's Funeral at the Dolley Pond 

Church of God with Signs Following, 1945 48 

Tom Harden, Pastor of the Dolley Pond 
Church, with His Wife, Children, 
and Mother, c. 1945 49 

Some Principal Members of the Dolley Pond 

Church, 1945 50 

Minnie Parker's Face Framed with a 

Rattlesnake, 1947 51 

Lewis Ford's Funeral, 1945 52 

Inez Riggs Hutcheson, George Hensley's 
Third Wife, with Reece Ramsey 
and Others, 1947 53 

Former Building of the Dolley Pond 

Church, 1989 55 

Site of George Hensley's Last Sermon 

and Fatal Serpent Bite in 1955 57 

Family Members of George Hensley, 1955 58 

Service of the Pentecostal Church 

of God, Harlan County, Kentucky, 1946 62 

Mrs. Cecil Denkins Handles a Serpent 

at the Dolley Pond Church, 1947 64 

Cecil Denkins with Serpent around 

His Neck, Dolley Pond, 1947 65 

Mrs. Parker with Rattlesnake around 

Her Neck, Dolley Pond, 1947 66 



Reece Ramsey, Dolley Pond, 1947 67 

"Coal Camp" Pentecostal Church Scene 68 

George Hensley Preaching outside 

Hamilton County Court House, 1947 76 

Some Principal Members of the 

Dolley Pond Church, 1947 77 

Legal Procedures against Members of the 

Dolley PonJ Church, 1947 78 

Judge George Shepherd of Cocke County, 

Tennessee, 1983 79 

Charles Prince Being Arrested in Haywood 

County, North Carolina, 1985 83 

Pastor Liston Pack Preaching on the "Signs" 

at Carson Springs, Tennessee, 1984 90 

Liston Pack, Pastor of the Carson Springs 
Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name, 
with Family, 1983 91 

Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name at 

Carson Springs, outside Newport, Tennessee 92 

Worship at Carson Springs, including 

Visiting Serpent Handlers, 1984 93 

Butord Pack and Jimmy Ray Williams during a 

Service in Chester, South Carolina, 1969 96 

Charles Prince "Taking up Serpents" and 
Quenching through Faith "the Violence 
of" Fire," 1984 98 

Charles Prince Drinking the 

"Deadly Thing," 1983 101 

Pallbearers with the Body of 

Charles Prince, 1985 103 

Charles Prince Drinking Strychnine 

at Carson Springs, 1984 104 

Charles Prince and Liston Pack "Tread" 

on Serpents, 1984 105 



viii • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Charles Prince "Taking up" Serpents 

at Carson Springs, 1984 1 07 

Ulysses Prince Preaching with Loudspeakers 

Mounted on His Van, 1946 109 

Baptism in Georgia hy Ulysses Prince, 1947 1 12 

The Children of Ulysses Prince, 1946 11 3 

Anna Prince with Her Mother, Father, 

and Brothers, 1942 118 

Anna Prince, 1982 123 

John Brown, Minister from Newport, 

Handling Serpents in Baxter, 1983 129 

Gracie McCallister from Jolo in Service at the 

Church of Jesus Christ, Baxter, 1985 131 

Charles Prince, Grady Henry, and 

Jimmy Morrow Follow One of the "Signs", 
Carson Springs, 1984 141 

Tim McCoy with Roy Lee "Bootie" 

Christian, 1988 146 

Members of the Jolo Congregation 

Dancing Together, 1988 147 

George Hensley with Second Wife, 

Irene, c. 1927 150 

James Roscoe Hensley, a Son by 

George's First Marriage, 1990 153 

Faith Lillian, George and Irene Hensley 's 

Daughter, Born 1928 154 



Two Sons of George Hensley: 

Roscoe and Loyal 1 54 

Emma Jean Potts, George and 

Irene Hensley 's Daughter 155 

Inscribed Snake Box at Jolo, 1991 160 

Mrs. Ray Johnson Being Comforted at 

Funeral of Her Husband, 1991 161 

A Poisonous Substance Drunk in Accordance 

with Scripture, 1983 163 

Sign outside Church Constructed by 

Pastor Say lor and His Four Sons, 1989 165 

Perry Bettis, Serpent Handler, 1989 166 

A Child Joins in Dancing at Hi-Way Holiness 

Church of God, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1989 167 

Liston Pack's Arms across His Bible 170 

Manifesting Luke 10:19, Charles Prince 

at Carson Springs, 1983 171 

"Boots" Parker Handles Fire at the 

Dolley Pond Church, c. 1945 172 

Pulpit Restrictions at the Church of the 

Lord Jesus, Jolo, 1985 174 

Young Families Attending Service at 

Hi-Way Holiness Church of God, 1989 176 

Tim McCoy Dancing with Visitor Willard 

Vance during Services at Jolo, 1991 177 

Bruce Helton, Pastor from Evarts, Kentucky, 

at a Meeting in Baxter, 1983 178 




And 

these 

signs 

shall 

folkrw 



Ackriowkdgnrients 



It is not possible for me to recognize by name all those 
who have significantly contributed to this work or to 
express adequately my appreciation for the assistance 
of those whose names are listed. I can but indicate a 
few names and categories. 

First are the serpent handlers themselves and the 
congregations to which they belong. Liston Pack has 
spent the most time with me, traveling, talking, ex- 
plaining, introducing; Dewey Chafin next, who even 
taught me how to catch rattlesnakes. After these have 
been many, especially Jimmy Williams, Charles Prince, 
Allen Williams, Bob and Barbara Elkins, Lydia Elkins 
Hollins, Ray McAllister, Arnold Saylor, Bud Gregg, 
Carl Porter, Jimmy Morrow, Andrew Click, Perry Bettis, 
Henry Swiney, Bill Pelfrey, James Wade, Gerald Fleenor, 
Harvey Grant, Jack Young, Bradley Shell, Joe Short, 
Joe Laws, Kermit Creech, Pete and Charles Rowe, Gregg 
and Jamie Coots, Wayne Ray, Sherman Ward, Ulysses 
Prince, and Byron Crawford. And there are those asso- 
ciated with serpent handlers who have contributed sig- 
nificantly, particularly Geneva Chafin, Joyce Williams, 
Anna Prince, Linda Prince, and Flora Bettis. 

Vital to this study also have been the family mem- 
bers of George Hensley who generously provided facts, 
anecdotes, family gossip, photographs, newspaper clip- 
pings, documents, telephone calls, and their time: J. R. 
and Anna Lee Hensley, J. C. and Juanita Lamb, Gene 
and Margaret Brown, Grace Cook, Dorothy Piotter, 
Raymond Piotter, Hannah Ruth Bettis, Winifred and 
Helen Harden, Loyal Hensley, LaCreta Simmons, Lloyd 
Stokes, Jean Potts, Janette Painting, La Verne Dalton, 
Thelma Dean Hartman, and William Hutchinson. 

East Tennessee State University provided physical 
support in various ways. The principal assistance was 
provided through the ETSU Center for Appalachian 
Studies and Services and its director Dr. Richard 



x • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Blaustein. A fifteen-hundred-dollar travel grant was 
given by the Research Development Committee; com- 
puter and secretarial assistance by Ruth Hausman, Ruth 
Tapp, and especially Deanna Bryant and Patti Patterson; 
important bibliographical research by Priscilla Wise, 
complemented by Ray Sybert; research assistance by 
my son Lewis, Todd Tipton, and Dona Addington; a 
carrel by Sherrod Library Director Dr. Fred Borchuck; 
and special considerations by the English Department 
through its chair, Dr. Styron Harris. 

Various librarians, archivists, and individuals in 
records have played a vital role in securing information. 
Some have patiently given much time: Beth Hogan, 
particularly, Dr. Marie Tedesco, Norma Myers, Rick 
LaRue, Sherrod Library, East Tennessee State Univer- 
sity; Lourdes Morales, Yvette Ashe, Hal Bernard 
Dixon, Jr., Pentecostal Research Center. Others too 
have been very helpful: Gayla L. Cassidy, Norman 
Fontana, Tomlinson College Library; Carol Norris, 
Rita Scher, Stephen Patrick, Sherrod Library; Betsy 
Williams, Quillen College of Medicine Library; Ned 
Irwin, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial 
Library; the Department of Business and Records, 
Church of God (Cleveland); Gwen in the Hamilton 
County Criminal Court Clerk's office; Janie Sealey, 
Asheville Citizen-Times; file clerk, Chattanooga 
News-Free Press; Andrea Kalas, UCLA Film and Tele- 



vision Archive; Carol Vandevender, West Virginia 
Office of Vital Statistics. 

Mike DuBose granted permission to use his engag- 
ing photographs, as did Bill Snead; J. B. Collins, Chat- 
tanooga News-Free Press, graciously offered his historic 
photos of the Dolley Pond Church of God. Larry Smith 
and Jim Slemp, ETSU Public Relations, provided mul- 
tiple photographic prints. Dr. Harold Hunter, Church 
of God of Prophecy, gave significant information, as 
did Dr. Charles W. Conn of the Church of God 
(Cleveland). Lou Crabtree kindly permitted use of one 
of her poems. 

Others who should be mentioned include Judge 
Oris Hyder, District Attorneys Al Schmutzer and C 
Burkley Bell, Sheriffs Gail Colyer and Jack Arrington, 
Elmer Gist (State of Virginia Division of Forensic Sci- 
ence), Charles and Ola White, Julia Brumlow, Minnie 
Harden, and both Barbara Robinson and her mother, 
who are responsible for my first visit to a serpent- 
handling service. 

Those who read the manuscript and encouraged its 
completion are vital to the work: especially Marie 
Graves from the first, John Taylor, Ambrose Manning, 
Anna Lee Gibson (who also provided videos and other 
materials), Peggy Henry (who gratuitously proofread), 
and David Hatcher, whose suggestions were extremely 
valuable in the final draft. 




And 

these 

signs 

shall 

follow 



Introduction 



It was one thing to acknowledge the existence of 
a God, of powers and forces beyond your intellec- 
tual grasp. After all, something had been going 
on. Clem's leg had regenerated itself, and the 
copperheads hadn't struck, the flame hadn't singed. 
But it was quite another thing to play hot potato 
with copperheads yourself. 

— Lisa Alther, Kinflicks 



One Saturday evening in November 1972 I attended 
for the first time the Carson Springs Holiness Church 
of God in Jesus Name. The congregation was meet- 
ing, as it still does, in a converted hunting cabin 
near Newport in the mountains of East Tennessee. 
The worship service was much like that witnessed 
in many churches throughout the area — preach- 
ing, singing, and praying. What made this service 
different was a practice that is referred to as "fol- 
lowing the signs" as set forth in the sixteenth chap- 
ter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark, a prac- 
tice that includes handling deadly serpents. 

I had never seen anything like it before. I must 
confess that my sensory responses were somewhat 
overloaded and my intellectual reactions were sus- 
pended, as if I were observing some strange ancient 
ritual. What was really going on here? What did it 



.11 



mean : 



The proposal to visit a serpent-handling church 
had emerged the previous year during a graduate 
class I was teaching in the techniques of collect- 
ing regional traditions. No one in the class knew 
of a church where the ritual was being practiced, 
but later one of the students informed me that her 
mother had taught a serpent handler in Newport 
and could arrange an invitation to visit his con- 
gregation. Not only was the invitation extended, 



Introduction • 3 




Facing page: Dewey Chafin, ofJolo, West Virginia, 
probably the most publicized of all religious serpent 
handlers. Photograph 1985 by Mike DuBose. 



Serpent boxes at foot of pulpit in Jolo, 1988. 
Photograph by the author. 



but another professor, several students, and I were 
permitted to him the service. In fact we were even 
allowed to film what occurred inside the home of 
the assistant pastor, where one of the members was 
taken after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Six months 
later at one of the church's meetings that same assis- 
tant pastor, along with the pastor's brother, died in 
another act of following the signs — drinking poison. 
Ten years after that event a colleague and I pro- 
duced a documentary on the Carson Springs church 
exploring the effects of these two deaths, the liti- 



gation that followed, and the influx of the mass 
media. 

My interest continued over the years and re- 
sulted in close associations with different serpent 
handlers, as well as another documentary on the 
conflict between the legal restrictions on serpent 
handling and religious freedom. It was not, how- 
ever, until Fred Brown, a newspaper feature writer, 
requested that I introduce him to the church in 
Carson Springs and later proposed collaborating in 
some way on a book that the present work was ini- 



4 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Barbara El kins, 
dominant force in the 
Church of the Lord 
Jesus in Jolo, who has 
handled serpents in 
religious services for 
some fifty years. 
Photograph by the 
author. 




tiated. Fred and I, therefore, continued to attend 
various serpent-handling churches together and 
separately, sometimes accompanied by a news- 
paper associate, photographer Mike DuBose. From 
the first what was proposed was not a highly theo- 
retical study, as might he the case in a theological, 
anthropological, or sociological treatise. We were 
interested rather in presenting a descriptive, ana- 
lytical, partly oral-historical insight into the belief 
and the believers of the taking up of serpents as an 
act of Christian obedience. What we wished to 
provide was a perspective for understanding the 
people as well as the practice. 

That perspective, however, is not easily attained. 
Since most of us tend to seek simple, concrete expla- 
nations for phenomena, it is easy to view one aspect 
of serpent handling rather than the whole and, 
consequently, either to romanticize or brutalize the 
people and the practice. One can feel after attend- 



ing a service that it is completely irrational, wild — 
people running around, falling down, quivering, 
uttering strange sounds; drinking deadly poisons; 
taking venomous serpents (giant and tiny ones, 
coiled, extended, limp, knotted together, rattlers, 
cottonmouths, copperheads, cobras) and staring at 
them nose to nose, wrapping them around their 
necks, wearing them on their heads, pitching them, 
carrying armloads of them, shaking them, petting 
them; displaying arms tattooed with snakes, hands at- 
rophied by bites, fingers missing, clothing embroi- 
dered and etched with snakes — or feel the same 
sense of the bizane after going into homes and seeing 
live deadly snakes in closets and adjoining rooms, 
pictures framed on the wall of people with hand- 
fuls of rattlers, photo albums of disfigured bodies 
from venom poisoning, or a huge frozen rattlesnake 
taken out of a freezer by a relative of a person whom 
the serpent killed during a funeral service for yet 



Introduction 



another snakebit victim. All of this can seem as 
abnormal as an episode from "The Twilight Zone." 
On the other hand, one can leave a service or 
a home and feel completely awed by the faith, sin- 
cerity, and mysterious power manifested by these 
people — sensing that somehow they know, feel, 
have something in their lives that is redeeming 
amidst a lost world. As Lou Crabtree's persona in 
her poem "salvation" says, "jesus jesus this old body 
aint so important / i got holiness flirtin with death." 
The integrity of serpent handlers strikes one as 
something real in the omnipresence of appearances, 
an inspiring breath in the mists of "mouth honor." 
Moreover, their commitment to the "word of God" 
is clearly metamorphic, like that of Tennyson's 
knights to the vows of King Arthur: 

... for every knight 

Believed himself a greater than himself . . . 

Till he, heing lifted up beyond himself, 

Did mightier deeds than elsewise he had done. 

What then is bizarre from one perspective may 
be profound from another, or humorous at the same 
time. Even serpent handlers sometimes laugh about 
a brother's good time in the Lord, or smile and say: 
"Yeah, he's something now." Anna Prince, the 
daughter of a serpent handler, recounts sign fol- 
lowers "in the Spirit" being completely uninhib- 
ited as though they were preschoolers, instances 
like that of one believer who poured drinking wa- 
ter over his head while others got up and danced 
in the water and laughed at him, yet loving him 
and having fun. There is in fact a childlike inno- 
cence about the whole religious approach of these 
believers. 

It is difficult to get at the reality or essential 
nature of the ritual of serpent handling. Serpents 
have been associated with religion in some form 




I 
I 



Lydia Elkins Hollins, organist, singer, and serpent 
handler, entering the Church of the Lord Jesus (her 
mother, Columbia Gay, died at twenty-two of serpent 
bite). Photograph 1988 by the author. 



since ancient, perhaps prehistoric, times. Some of 
the earliest artistic images — from twenty to thirty 
thousand years ago — are serpentine, and serpents 
were significant in the religions of the ancient world 
of the Fertile Crescent, from Egypt to India, the 
region "thought by some experts to be the primary 
source of snake worship and symbolism" (Morris 
and Morris 10, 41). Serpents have continued to be 
prominent in religious rituals up to and including 
modern times in various parts of the world. Even 
though what the serpent specifically represented to 
the prehistoric cave dweller is unknown, it clearly 
has always inspired the creative imagination: "On 
the one hand, it has been a symbol of procreation, 
health, longevity, immortality and wisdom; on the 
other, it has represented death, disease, sin, lech- 
ery, duplicity, and temptation" (Morris and Morris 
vii). 

Serpent handling by Christians in modern times, 
however, has been evidenced for less than a hun- 



6 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



dred years, although contemporary adherents trace 
their belief to the words of Jesus to his disciples 
immediately prior to the ascension as recorded in 
Mark: "And these signs shall follow them that be- 
lieve; In my name shall they cast out devils; they 
shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up 
serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall 
not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, 
and they shall recover" (16:17-18). Because of the 
initial words of this text, serpent handlers are of- 
ten referred to as "sign followers." They consider 
themselves simply Christians who are following 
the will of God. 

Sign followers believe that at some point they 
are baptized by the Holy Ghost. They trace this bap- 
tism to the description of the Day of Pentecost found 
in the second book of the Acts of the Apostles, 
where the followers of Jesus "were all filled with 
the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other 
tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (verse 
4) and where "many wonders and signs were done 
by the apostles" (verse 43). Serpent handlers as a 
group are considered by church historians to be 
part of what is referred to as the Pentecostal move- 
ment in America. From a historical point of view, 
this movement may be said to have evolved around 
the turn of the twentieth century from the closely 
preceding Holiness movement, which was rooted 
in the eighteenth-century Wesleyan emphasis on 
experiencing Christian perfection after redemp- 
tion. During the close of the nineteenth century 
and the early part of the twentieth, many individu- 
als and groups separated themselves from established 
religious organizations in order to avoid what they 
perceived as liberalism, modernism, and worldliness. 
Some of these groups remained independent; some 
joined fellowships and created new religious organi- 



zations, which in some cases splintered and formed 
other church bodies or again became independent. 
Church historian Charles Conn says that between 
"1880 and 1926 a total of twenty-five Holiness and 
Pentecostal churches were formed" (11). 

The Church of God, which early in this cen- 
tury claimed exclusively for itself serpent handling — 
among other signs — as a manifestation of its au- 
thenticity, was among the earliest Holiness separatist 
groups that became Pentecostal bodies (Conn xxvi). 
This church, with headquarters in Cleveland, Ten- 
nessee, but organized in Monroe County, Tennes- 
see, in 1886 with eight members as the Christian 
Union, changed its name to the Holiness Church 
in 1902 and to the Church of God in 1907 (xxix). 
It may be easily confused with others since its name 
is used in one form or another by some "200 inde- 
pendent religious bodies in the United States" ( Mead 
74). 

The Pentecostal experience as set forth by the 
/ Church of God occurs in three stages (M. Crews 
/ 8). First comes regeneration, or new birth, when 
one experiences salvation from sin. Second is sancti- 
fkation, when one experiences instantaneously the 
eradication of one's sinful nature, which effects 
Christian perfection or the "way of Holiness," the 
pursuit of a strict moral, self-denying, ascetic lifestyle. 
The third stage is baptism of the Holy Ghost. The 
manifestation of the Holy Ghost in the speaking 
in tongues first occurred in the Church of God in 
1898, according to Conn, "ten years before the 
outpouring of the Holy Ghost in California in 1 906 
which is popularly regarded as the beginning of the 
^modern Pentecostal movement" (25). There is, how- 
ever, considerable debate as to "when the full blown 
Pentecostal doctrine of Spirit-baptism emerged" 
(Hunter, Spirit-Baptism 5). 



Introduction • 7 



The Church of God has disassociated itself from 
the practice of serpent handling as it is presently 
known, but Pentecostal serpent handlers share with 
other Church of God members and other Pentecos- 
tals a belief in salvation and sanctification (though 
diversely interpreted): in the baptism of the Holy 
Ghost, the manifestation of the Holy Ghost in the 
speaking in tongues, and in the other eight spiri- 
tual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:1-10. They do 
not share with all Pentecostals their interpreta- 
tions of the other "signs," which include the tak- 
ing up of serpents. 

Apparently serpent handling sprang up during 
the first ten years or so of the twentieth century in 
East Tennessee, and certainly from this state it was 
widely disseminated. I have paid particular atten- 
tion, therefore, to serpent handling in Tennessee, 
although a complete historical investigation of the 
practice in the state was not attempted. Such an 
examination would be valuable for each of the states 
where serpent handling is evidenced, yet only a few 
have received such treatment and only in unpub- 
lished theses (Ambrose, Kimbrough, Vance). 

We asked ourselves why this ritual got started 
in Tennessee, if in fact it did, instead of some- 
where else. The necessary elements were certainly 
present, but what exactly those elements were and 
whether they were present in other places are dif- 
ficult matters to explain, perhaps ultimately inex- 
plicable. Certainly vital was the presence of a fer- 
vent fundamentalist religious community with a 
traditional approach to biblical interpretation and 
with traditional values that would evoke and rein- 
force the practice. Ministers were most certainly 
preaching on the key biblical text in some manner 
as a part of Jesus' final words; and no doubt the 
situation in many places was as Henry Swiney de- 



scribes it up on Newman's Ridge in Tennessee, 
/where serpent handling had long been preached by 
\ those who did not practice it. To sign-following 
believers, baptism of the Holy Ghost had been mani- 
fested for decades by the speaking in tongues; tak- 
ing up serpents was a phenomenon just waiting to 
happen. 

Once the ritual started, that it spread quickly 
and widely indicates the presence of the vital ele- 
ments elsewhere, particularly in the southern Ap- 
palachians and other parts of the South. But one 
crucial factor necessary was there being the right 
person to take up a serpent first and to convince 
others to do the same. That person in East Ten- 
nessee was George Went Hensley. About the same 
time in northern Alabama, according to Paul Vance 
(36), the individual was James Miller. Miller was a 
Baptist preacher in DeKalb County whose knowl- 
edge of Holiness belief was apparently from hear- 
say rather than direct contact, and it was from his 
personal reading and religious experience that he 
independently took up serpents in 1912. He then 
experienced what many sign followers were to un- 
dergo, being forced out of conventional churches 
for handling serpents. Miller was turned out of the 
Baptist church that he served, yet he continued to 
preach in homes and brush arbors. Miller was re- 
sponsible for the introduction of the belief of ser- 
pent handling not only to the Sand Mountain re- 
gion in 1912 but ultimately to the southern Georgian 
counties of Berrien and Cook (5, 55), vital since 
1920. Also linked to Miller's influence may be the 
many experiences that Church of God evangelist 
J. B. Ellis had with serpent handling at religious 
meetings during 1912 in Straight Creek, Alabama 
(M. Crews 84; Evangel 9 May 1914: 8). Then again, 
the instances observed by Ellis — who was not a 




Facing page: "Sign follower" Jimmy Lair in Baxter. 
Kentucky, belying any special technique in taking up 
serpents. Photograph 1985 by Mike DuBose. 



practitioner and who preferred that handling not 
occur at his meetings (Ellis 49) — may be indepen- 
dent of both Miller and Hensley. 

Since, however, George Hensley is the person 
generally credited with the founding of contempo- 
rary serpent handling, and probably justly so, it 
was imperative to present as much information as 
possible about him. There is relatively little spe- 
cific published data pertaining to Hensley, but to 
know that which is reported in oral historical ac- 
counts as well as in public record is to know in 
large measure not only the man himself but also 
the story of sign followers in general. The itiner- 
ant ministry, the themes of sermons, the preach- 
ing style, the unyielding adherence to belief in the 
face of social and legal opposition, the ebb and flow 
of public impact, and the complexity of personal in- 
volvement — all are features of George Hensley's life 



Lvdia Elkins Hollins handling a rattlesnake. Family 
members looking on are her uncle Dewey; grandmother 
Barbara, who raised her; and step-grandfather Pastor 
Bill Elkins. Photograph 1991 byBillSnead. 

that are simultaneously highly individual and rep- 
resentative. 

When Hensley began serpent handling, he was 
associated with the Church of God, although later 
he resigned his ministry with that organization. 
Other Independents, such as Miller in Alabama, 
introduced serpent handling in their areas; but the 
evangelists of the Church of God, particularly at 
first, were responsible for the spread throughout 
the missionary fields. A graphic picture of those 
early days of sign followers as they went forth is 
provided by their reports from what they consid- 
ered the "Battlefield" to the official church paper, 
the Evangel. 

Serpent handlers immediately came into con- 
flict with those who did not believe as they did, 
both the rabble and the religious. Later they con- 
fronted legal restrictions on the practice of their 



10 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



belief. George Hensley himself was faced with a 
city ordinance in Bartow, Florida, as early as 1936 
"forbidding the transportation, exhibition of or the 
handling in public of any venomous reptile within 
the city limits unless the snake is confined in a 
suitable container or pen." Violations of the ordi- 
nance were "punishable by a fine of $ 100.00 or 60 
days at hard labor" ("Fatal Snake Bite" 1). This 
particular legal action was taken, as was to be the 
common circumstance, in response to a person's 
being injured by a serpent bite; the Florida ordi- 
nance was passed the day Alfred Weaver died af- 
ter being bitten the previous evening in a revival 
service of a Pentecostal church. Within a few years 
a number of southern states began to legislate against 
the practice. Kentucky was first in 1940; Georgia, 
Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama 
were to follow. Of particular interest is the litiga- 
tion in Tennessee; it provides the means of exam- 
ining the principal legal issues involving serpent 
handling, including the subtle constitutional bal- 
ance between maintaining both a healthy society 
and the religious freedom of its members. 

One purpose of our visits with sign followers 
was to refine our sensitivity toward these people, 
not to delineate all their highly idiosyncratic be- 
liefs or to ferret out all the people involved in the 
practice. Since each person is viewed as respon- 
sible for his or her own interpretation according to 
one's own light, there is a wide variety and fluidity of 
explications of scriptural texts. Even relative to the 
statement regarding the signs in Mark 16, there are 
great differences in particulars, such as the meaning 
and significance of the words shall and if in "They 
shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly 
thing." 



The differences in scriptural interpretation are 
the bases of numerous divisions and are important 
in a number of ways, but these are beyond the in- 
tended focus upon the sign of serpent handling. 
Whereas an in-depth analysis of the other four signs, 
the nine spiritual gifts, the handling of fire, the trin- 
ity, and any number of other beliefs would be helpful 
in providing theological perspective, many of these 
doctrines have received considerable examination 
by other writers and are not distinctive to serpent 
handlers. Consequently, rather than producing a 
demographic study of the faith or a comprehensive 
religious treatise analyzing systematically all the 
tenets of the belief, I have attempted to emphasize 
the quality and nature of that belief. 

There are drawbacks, though, in focusing on 
the single sign of taking up serpents. For one thing, 
it reinforces a distortion represented by expressions 
such as "snake religion" or "snake cult." I have 
tried to offset this impression by emphasizing that 
these folks are normal people; they are not mem- 
bers of an esoteric, unorthodox religion; they are 
Christian fundamentalists who view the taking up 
of serpents as only one teaching of the Bible. To- 
ward conveying a proper perception of sign follow- 
ers, sketches are presented of the lives of some in- 
dividual serpent handlers. The choice could have 
included any number ot persons, but perhaps none 
better. Still, as clear as our insights might be, they 
are from the point of view of outsiders, even though 
we often allow serpent handlers to speak for them- 
selves. The inside perspective we lack is provided 
by an autobiographical account of Anna Prince, 
who grew up in a family in which the father and a 
brother were serpent handlers. Implicit in her nar- 
rative is the whole story of serpent handling — its 



Introduction • / . 



faith, sincerity, simplicity, joy, suffering, light, and 
darkness. 

Other paths could have been taken, but the 
one I have chosen is to provide both by exposi- 
tion and illustration a sensitive, general, but schol- 
arly perspective on the people and the practice of 
sign-following serpent handling. An interviewer 
for National Public Radio asked recently what had 
caused me to maintain contact over the years with 
a number of serpent handlers. My answer was that 
they are good friends. They are strong, courageous, 



ethical people. Some have remarkably gentle spir- 
its, and some, I believe, would stand by me in the face 
of any opposition. I am proud of their friendship. 

An especially compelling quality of most ser- 
pent handlers is that they are willing to die for 
their beliefs. Not only are they willing, they re- 
peatedly verify that commitment directly and con- 
cretely. Like Matthew Arnold's Scholar Gypsy, they 
seek "the spark from heaven" whereas most of the 
people of the world are "Light half-believers of our 
casual creeds." 



1 



And 

these 

signs 

shall 

follow 



Believers 



Serpent handlers are believers — believers in God, 
in God's power, in the Bible as God's word, in God's 
direction through the Holy Ghost. Many of them 
have great faith, and they will often quote the pas- 
sage: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped 
for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1); 
but their faith in large part is based not on "things 
hoped for" and "not seen," but on personal experi- 
ence. And that experience goes beyond the handling 
of serpents. For example, in the case of Marvin "Bud" 
Gregg from Morristown, Tennessee, snakes had 
nothing to do with his becoming a believer. Rather, 
as he relates, it had to do with something that hap- 
pened in his life one Saturday afternoon when a 
group of people were gathering for evening wor- 
ship: 

Some of them began to come in at one, two o'clock 
in the afternoon for services at seven thirty. I 
never would go to church. That day, my uncle was 
working on a car down here and had some clean- 
ing fluid; and my daughter at that time was a real 
small child, she got out there and drunk some of 
the cleaning fluid and she died. And a lot of people 
say, well, how do I know she died? Well, her breath 
left her body and her jaws locked; she turned 
black, and blood was coming from her mouth. 
And people began to pray, began to get around her 
and pray; and when they did — I guess they prayed 
for five minutes — anyway, the Lord moved and 
brought her back, put breath back in her body. 
And that night, 1 repented. 

This claim of the dead being raised is not un- 
common among those who handle serpents. It is 
an experience that Charles Prince from Canton, 
North Carolina, witnessed in his family: 



14 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Peter [the apostle] even went far enough as to raise 
the dead, and that's something we shouldn't 
flinch at a bit because I have seen the dead raised. 
Now 1 was raised up in a Christian home. 1 never 
have had a reason to doubt, because they was a 
girl — she was about maybe ten years old at the 
time. She had died, and her daddy was standing in 
the road, and it a-raining, and flagged down my 
daddy — knowing that my daddy and some other 
people coming from church were believers. He 
flagged them down, and they stopped there in the 
rain — and they's a mill right near it — and took 
the girl inside this mill where they grind corn and 
laid her on the table there. And I don't know how 
many people, examined her there carefully, said 
she was done getting stiff and that she was cold; 
she wasn't breathing, no heartbeat, no pulse. Just 
plain dead. But this brother was crying and said, 
"Pray for her." And they prayed, seemed like over 
and over for maybe forty-five minutes. Directly, 
that girl sat up. And then she's alive today and 
has got children. And she was brought back from 
the dead. 

Besides this incident, Charles experienced other 
wonders manifested by his family. 

Now my mother, she had real good victory in 
handling fire for years. I hadn't seen her do it 
recently, but back when I was just a child, it was 
common then to have coal, be burning coal in 
heaters. And she'd open the front of the heatet 
and dip her arms plumb down — I mean, plumb 
down into those coals — and come out with both 
hands full and put them against her clothes and 
hold it like this [cupped in her arms] and shout 
around through the church. And they'd be coals 
fall off, and my dad would come along and pick 
them up, them still red. Now he never did really 



get the victory that good himself; but seeing her, 
he could come along and pick those coals up, and 
they wasn't even hot — they's red, but they wasn't 
even hot. 

Harvey Grant, from Sweetwater, Tennessee, also 
experienced his mother's "miraculous" powers — 
gifts of prophecy and healing. He recalls her at dif- 
ferent times starting to shout, then getting down 
on the floor and praying that God reveal to her if 
somebody were sick so she could go heal them: 

I seen the power of God knock her down, 
where she got the Holy Ghost, in the kitchen and 
het head hangin' out the back door. I went over 
to her. I said, "Mother, you hurt?" She just raised 
up and went to speakin' in tongues, and so she 
was done prayin' and she said to my Daddy, said, 

"John, I'm gonna go up here and tell to 

set his house in order, he's gonna die. Daddy said, 
"You're crazy." She said, "I'm goin'." Said, "His 
blood's not gonna be on my hands on the Day of 
Judgment." She went up there and said, "How are 

you, Mr. ?" He said, "Oh, I feel good"; 

said, "Feel like I'm gonna be here about twenty 

years." Mothet said, "Mr. , God sent me 

up here to warn you. Set your house in order; you 
just got three weeks to live." He said, "You're 
crazy, Mrs. Grant." She said, "I may be, but your 
blood's not held by my hand." Next day he stepped 
on a nail, set up blood poisoning, and about three 
days after that he had to have his leg took off at 
the knee. And about two days before three weeks 
was up, they took his leg off up here in Charlotte. 
He died. He went unprepared to meet God. 

And Mother went to pray for a woman that got 
syphilis. And Dr. Roberts had a sign on, "Quaran- 
tine," and said to mother, said, "You can't be goin' 
in there all by yourself." She said, "I'm not"; said, 




Sendees at the Church of Jesus Christ, Baxter (strychnine , anointing oil, and fire-handling torch on the pulpit). 
Photograph 1983 by Mike DuBose. 




Visitors William Hollins (with serpent to face) and Bruce Helton at Baxter. Photograph 1983 by Mike DuBose. 



Beli', 



17 




Jenette Kennedy, who regularly handles serpents at 
Jolo. Photograph 1988 by the author. 



"I'm takin' God in there with me." Said, "He sent 

me down here to pray for . He's gonna 

heal her." He said, "All right." God healed that 
woman. She went and got married after that in 
Detroit and had three or four children. That's 
what kind of a God it is. 

Charles Rowe from Baxter, Kentucky, recounts 
miraculous events of a different nature in his fam- 
ily. His sister was apparently possessed with a de- 
mon. Rowe was on the floor beside her in the church, 
praying, and she started to strangle as if she were 
about to choke to death. Then she spit up a glob 
that he assumed to be the evil spirit. After this, 
she wanted to be rebaptized by her father. She was 
then taken to the river, but it was so cold that, be- 
fore she and her father could enter the water, ice 
had to be chipped away. As she emerged, Charles 
wrapped a blanket around her but noticed that her 
body was warm. She refused the blanket, saying 
she did not need it. Others there testified that she 
walked to the house several hundred yards away in 
clothing dripping wet without feeling any cold. 

Bud Gregg has had similar experiences of con- 



fronting evil spirits. During church services, de- 
mons have talked to Pastor Gregg, even growled. 
Sometimes angels are seen. Pastor Gregg has seen 
the Holy Ghost in the form of a mist inside the 
building. When he has had a full measure of that 
Spirit, he has been able to cast out demons, handle 
any serpent, drink the "deadly thing," and handle 
fire (even a propane torch) without being burned. 

These individuals, along with many others, ac- 
cept all the signs — speaking in tongues, casting out 
demons, handling serpents, drinking deadly things, 
healing the sick — because "It's Bible." Their belief, 
however, transcends simple acceptance of the valid- 
ity of the Scripture since they have personal experi- 
ence to substantiate it. Relative to serpent handling 
in particular, as Pastor Carl Porter of Kingston, Geor- 
gia, strongly affirms, "I do know that it's right. I've 
had it move on me too many times for me to ever 
say that it wasn't right, for it's right. There ain't 
no way around it." 

In explaining the purpose of the signs, serpent 
handlers emphasize Mark 16:19-20. These verses 
provide the context in which the signs were ini- 



Tim McCoy testifying before the church at Jolo. 
Photograph 1991 by Bill Snead. 





Visitors and members handling serpents at Jolo Homecoming: Barbara Elkins (behind pulpit); Verlin Short, 
Mayking, Kentucky (center); Larry Muncy, Logan County, West Virginia (behind him); recent member Jeff 
Hagerman (to the right); and thirty-year member Ray McCallister (extreme right). Photograph 1991 by Bill Snead. 



tially given as well as their relationship to the preach- 
ing of the gospel. 

So then after the Lord had spoken unto them 
[Jesus' disciples], he was received up into heaven, 
and sat on the right hand of God. 

And they went forth, and preached every 
where, the Lord working with them, and confirm- 
ing the word with signs following. 

The argument by contemporary serpent han- 
dlers is that they are believers and that the signs 
follow them exactly as Jesus promised. The pur- 
pose, they say, is the same as for the disciples of the 
first century, that is, to confirm the word preached 



to unbelievers. Their experience in the signs, how- 
ever, goes beyond confirming the gospel to unbe- 
lievers; it confirms their own belief that the power 
of God is available to them. Moreover, that power 
is unlimited, but it takes repentance, remission of 
sins, and a godly life for them to receive it fully. 
As the late Perry Bettis of Birchwood, Tennessee, 
forcefully expressed in one of his sermons: 

Jesus Christ come, brother, and he granted 
them a mission to go out. He sent them out, 
brother, two by two. And he give them power, 
hallelu, to cleanse the leprosy and raise the dead 
and give sight to the blind, heal the lame, heal 




Lydia Elkins Hollins at the organ in the Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo. Photograph 1985 by Mike DuBose. 



every kind of disease there was. Jesus give them 
the power to do it. Why, there ain't no power like 
God's power. 

Have you got the Holy Ghost? Huh? Yeah. You 
got the greatest power in you that's in the whole 
world. Right inside that body is the greatest power 
that's ever been known to man and ever will be 
known to man, is God Himself. You that's got the 
Holy Ghost has got it in you. It's your fault for not 
usin' it. It's not God's fault. God give it to you to 
use, and if you don't want to get in shape to use 
it — hey listen, hold it, hold, let me tell your mind, 
listen to me. God give me the gift of ministry, the 
preachin' the word. I can't read, I know that; but, 
wait, when God moves on me, I can preach. God 



give me that gift. It's in me. I'll preach on the 
street corner, I'll preach on top of this building, 
I'll preach anywhere that God — hallelujah, I'll 
preach it right in the Devil's face. I don't care. But 
God expects me, me, me, myself to live the life to 
be proud of there to do that job. 

God expects you, brother, and you, sister, to 
live their life to where God can work through ye. 
Why, God's not goin' to work through that den of 
Babylon. They is things that we do that God abso- 
lutely hates — six and sixteen, brother, Proverbs. 

Tonight, children, we need to learn how to 
worship God worser than anything in the world. 
We learn how to repent a little bit, but some of us 
ain't learned how to fully repent. Repentance is to 




Church of the Lord Jesus atJolo. Photograph 1985 by Mike DuBose. 



quit doin' anything and not go back to it. Change 
your walk of life, change your way of thinkin', 
change your way of talkin', change everything in 
you — Jesus can make a new creature in God out of 
you. 

Still, a question that always rears its head, even 
to serpent handlers, is: "What if someone gets hurt 
or dies?" As in almost every other aspect of the be- 
liefs of serpent handlers, it is inappropriate to be- 
gin an analysis of this question with the preface, 
"Serpent handlers believe . . . ," as though there 
were a consensus of opinion or an authorized posi- 
tion. One of the few instances in which such a 



statement would be appropriate is: "Serpent han- 
dlers believe in autonomy regarding their interpre- 
tation of the Bible and their perception of the di- 
rection of the Holy Ghost." 

Serpent handlers do, however, often divide 
themselves into two groups according to their in- 
terpretation of the Godhead and, subsequently, ac- 
cording to the name in which they are baptized. 
That difference centers upon two concepts, often 
referred to as "Trinity" and "Jesus Name": ( 1 ) The 
Godhead is made up of three entities. From this 
tenet a person is baptized "in the name of the Fa- 
ther, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" ac- 
cording to Matthew 28:19. (2) There is "One God 



Believers • 21 




Members of the Church of the Lord Jesus healing the sick by prayer and laying on of hands, one of the fixe "signs" 
cited in St. Mark 16:18. Photograph 1991 by Bill Snead. 



and Father of all" (Heb. 4:6), Jesus and the Holy 
Ghost being human and spiritual manifestations of 
God respectively. A person from this perspective 
is baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ" according to 
Acts 2:38; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not con- 
sidered to be names, unlike "Jesus." Variations on the 
second concept for the name employed in baptism 
are "Jesus" (omitting "Christ") and "the Lord Jesus." 
Other differences revolve around foot washing, 
the Lord's Supper, divorce and remarriage (called 
"double marriages"), and various other practices 
and interpretations of Scripture. Some of these dif- 
ferences occur within congregations as well as be- 
tween churches. Some serpent-handling churches 
describe themselves as Pentecostal Holiness, but 
they are not members of any formal organization — 
they are independent. The term Holiness people is 
sometimes defined simply as "people living godly, 



holy lives," and Pentecostal as "anything that speaks 
in tongues and claims the Holy Ghost." 

Serpent handlers might attend religious ser- 
vices where they would be allowed to handle ser- 
pents but be excluded from preaching and even be 
considered as "going to hell" unless they changed 
their beliefs. On the other hand, preachers who 
are known as serpent handlers might be allowed 
to preach to non-serpent-handling congregations. 
The late Perry Bettis's personal circumstance is a 
good illustration of the complexity in matters of 
fellowship that exists among the various churches. 
Bettis was baptized in the name of the Father, the 
Son, and the Holy Ghost at the Dolley Pond Church 
of God with Signs Following, but some years after 
he changed from "Trinity" and was baptized "in 
the name of Jesus Christ." (Dolley Pond, in Grass- 
hopper Valley, Tennessee, was originally serpent 




JESUS MADE THE WORLD. 



St Joint 1 18 

Tommy Coots (deceased) former pastor at Middlesboro, Kentucky , following a common practice 
of placing serpent on the pulpit. Photograph 1955 by Mike DuBose. 




Lite Blankenship, mother of Ray Johnson, who died of serpent bite, being comforted 
by her daughter and son-in-law. Photograph 1991 by Bill Snead. 



24 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



handling and non-denominational, but later the 
building was sold to a group of non-serpent han- 
dlers who are members of the Church of God of 
Prophecy.) He worshipped with different groups, 
and his participation in their services varied accord- 
ing to the particular church he attended: "Well, I 
went to the 'Free Holiness,' but they wouldn't let me 
preach, but I handled the snakes. And I preached, 
mostly when I preach, I preach in the Jesus Name 
movement, and that's saying whether they be 'Lord 
Jesus' people or whether they be 'Jesus Christ' people 
or 'Jesus'; and, you know, I preach mostly in them 
churches. But a lot of the 'Jesus Name' people will 
not have serpent handling no way you can fix it." 
The comments of Liston Pack, of Newport, Ten- 
nessee, give further insight into the complexity of 
the divisions: 

This "Free Holiness" don't accept the Church 
of God. They will not, yet they handle serpents. 
They won't accept. And the "Jesus Name," what 
they call the "Single Name" or the "Jesus Name," 
will not accept the "Lord Jesus" people. And some 
of them believes in foot washing and the com- 
munion, and some don't. And those of them that 
do won't participate with the others. However, 
you've got different groups in different areas that 
handle serpents, but they won't communicate 
with one another because "you wash feet and I 
don't," and "I'm a 'Free Holiness' and you're a 
'Church of God'"; "he's a 'Jesus Name,' but he 
handles." 

All these people from Grasshopper Valley, 
Tennessee, to the Appalachian Mountains in 
West Virginia and the state of Florida ([years] 
back) in the eastern half of the United States — 
there'd probably be four to five thousand people 



handling serpents at one time. But maybe out of 
five thousand, they wouldn't be over fifty or sixty 
in joining in believing accurate the same thing. 
There'd be "Free Holiness," "Elders" Church of 
God [the Church of God with headquarters in 
Cleveland, Tennessee], Pentecostal, different 
types of religion, "Jesus Name," and "Lord Jesus." 
And everybody says that they are right in what 
they were doing, but they won't communicate 
with one another. 

As one would expect, the answer given by ser- 
pent handlers to the question "What if someone 
gets hurt or dies?" is varied. The responses to the 
death of Charles Prince from serpent bite and strych- 
nine poisoning during a religious service is a case in 
point. Those who spoke and prayed at Charles's fu- 
neral, including Charles's father, Ulysses G. Prince, 
repeatedly stated that it was the Lord's will that a 
servant of God (who was obediently following the 
signs) had been taken "home" according to a di- 
vine purpose not necessarily clear to those who re- 
mained behind on earth. The fatal result for them 
did not reflect anything negative toward the par- 
ticipant or the practice itself. 

There are other views. Bud Gregg, who felt es- 
pecially close to Charles both as an individual and 
as a member of the congregation he pastors, thinks 
there were several factors involved: "I believe he 
tried to help the lost people, help anyone, anywhere, 
that he saw in need — I believe Charles Prince tried 
to help him. The Devil didn't like that and so, 
therefore, I believe that he was fighting Charles 
with all he had. The Bible says we war 'not against 
flesh and blood, but against powers and principali- 
ties and spiritual wickedness in high places.'" 

Besides this war with the powers of darkness, 



Belu 



• 25 



according to Pastor Bud, there was opposition from 
the church where Charles was bitten. Gregg says, 
"I talked to Charles about the difference in the be- 
lief, you know, how some people just absolutely 
got a spirit against Jesus Christ people. They defi- 
nitely got a spirit against it, and it's not so much 
the word Jesus; it's the word Christ that a lot of 
people don't like. He knew that they were against 
him because we talked about it many times; and 
he said, 'I believe that I can help those people if I 
keep going up there.'" Charles, though, was not 
able to change their attitudes; instead, they felt that 
Charles was bound for hell. Gregg thinks that this 
"spirit" of opposition was detrimental to Charles's 
safety: "I was not there at that service. I don't know 
what really happened, but a person working the signs 
of the Gospel needs to be careful about what's going 
on in the congregation around him. When you're 
taking up serpents, I do believe that there needs 
to be love and unity in the church in order to do 
it for complete safety." 

Of utmost importance, however, as Gregg ex- 
plains, is the spiritual state of the handler himself. 

We shouldn't walk after the flesh, and the flesh is 
contrary to the spirit, and the spirit contrary to 
the flesh. It's a warfare there. The Bible says it's a 
warfare, and it's continuously fighting; and if 
there's something in our flesh that fights against 
our spirit, which is the Holy Ghost, then I believe 
we should do away with that completely before we 
should try to work the works of God. I believe 
everything should be right in the sight of God in 
your life before you started to work in the works of 
God. 

Although Pastor Bud does not "judge" Charles, 



he does not think "everything was right in the sight 
of God." He even "prophesied" a warning to Chatles 
the evening before he was bitten: 

I won't say all that the Lord had showed me; but 
anyway, the Lord showed me that the serpent bite 
was coming, and I talked to Brother Charles im- 
mediately after the service on Friday night, and I 
told Brother Charles, I said, "Brother Charles, the 
bite is coming." I said, "Now, I don't know what 
the consequences of the bite is going to be." But 1 
knew that it was going to be a bad bite, and I told 
my brother, I said, "Whatever you do, you need to 
be careful." Now, Brother Charles had this say- 
ing — someone asked him to be careful one time, 
and he said, "How can you be careful with a rattle- 
snake in your hand? The anointment of God is 
the safety." 

Pastor Gregg's warning included the admonition 
that Charles was "exalting" himself rather than 
God in the signs. Charles, nevertheless, said that 
he would have to go on and accept whatever God's 
will was. After he was bitten, he confessed to the 
congregation of being guilty of self-exaltation. 

Charles's sister Anna also says that God spoke 
to her regarding Charles's death. The tevelation, 
she says, was a single word, "attitude." Unlike her 
father, who would fast and pray prior to handling 
serpents, Charles would go to services at different 
churches, two, three, four times a week — week af- 
ter week — carrying boxes full of serpents that he 
had predetennined to handle. She felt that Charles 
had gotten things out of perspective and that his 
death was divine tetribution, as well as a forewarn- 
ing to those who were following Charles's example. 
Her feeling was reinforced by a vision of another 



26 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



individual who in viewing her brother's body in 
the casket saw a cobra in Charles's bosom, which 
was interpreted as a sign of evil. 

Years before his death Charles himself talked 
about some of the circumstances that would cause 
one to be hurt in the signs. (The word hurt is used 
by sign followers specifically to signify suffering se- 
rious effects from taking poison or being bitten.) 
He, in agreement with Bud Gregg, was aware of 
the effect that those who attend the service can 
have on the serpents: "I mean, if they 's a lot of un- 
belief, and a lot of fear, then the serpent — you can 
see it — acts different too, some of them swinging, 
moving real fast and struggling; but fear in the church 
can cause that. But if the church is united in faith, in 
just a good strong, steady faith all over the church, 
then just about anything can be done." Also along 
with Brother Bud, Charles felt that of supreme im- 
portance was the state of the individual — a fearless 
state produced by God's Spirit. "If we know that His 
Spirit is dwelling in us and His hand has made that 
serpent, He's able to control it and He does con- 
trol it. But when we do get hurt by them, it's when 
we get fear." At one time in Charles life that fear 
was dispelled only by the anointing of the Holy 
Ghost, but later another element became increas- 
ingly important — his faith in the assurances of the 
Bible. 

I used to only take the serpents up in the 
anointing. I mean, the Spirit of God would 
come over me so strong that that fear would 
temporarily be gone. Then when that started 
wearing off, then I'd realize I was there maybe 
looking a rattlesnake in the eye; and they'd 
be a sudden tear come over me. And, boy, it'd 
feel so good when I got it out of my hand. But 
now, that was just only with anointing without 



the faith, without the faith that backs it up. But 
the anointing still comes, but I've got a faith that 
when the anointing starts to wear off, still the 
faith is in that written word that backs it up. But 
with anointing alone, then the fear has a ten- 
dency to come back. But that faith is in that writ- 
ten word, and it's solid like a rock. It just don't 
give way, it don't, don't leave. 

But unwavering faith was not always the cir- 
cumstance with Charles. He described an instance 
of handling fire in which his faith wavered and he 
was burned: 

And that was along about the time when I 
got serpent-bit those three times. And my 
faith wavered at that time. But now we've 
had copperheads that would actually, you 
could put your hands — it's double screened — 
and you could put your hand on top of the 
wire, and they would hit this bottom wire so 
much that it'd wet your hand and make it 
sticky with venom. But then when the Lord 
moves, you can reach in there and get them, 
and no harm. I mean, there ain't no wire in 
between, but they become harmless. 

Charles also said that, if he wete bitten, he be- 
lieved it would be from a lack of faith: "I definitely 
believe it would be my faith wavering if I did get 
bit; but then, if I could get a-hold of my faith, then 
after I'm bitten, then they'd still be no harm." 

Charles suggested that some sign followers who 
are bitten are simply having their ptayers answered: 

There's some that'll get up and preach and say, 
"When the Lord takes me, I hope he takes me by 
serpent bite or in the signs." Then if they make 
that request to the Lord, then it might be that 



Believers • 27 



He'll go ahead and give them what they requested. 
And that's the way they go. They's one brother up 
in West Virginia — I've not really met him — but 
I've heard of him a lot. I've heard of him that he's 
been bitten up near a hundred time. But the way 
he bases his faith is that they will bite him, but 
they won't hurt him. And so it's a miracle that 
he's lived through that many bites. But he says 
that he wants to be bit by all different kinds of 
serpents including the cobra and the serpents he 
has imported from other countries; and yet he says 
he wants to die by a copperhead bite, which is the 
least likely to kill you. 

Charles, on the other hand, did not want to 
die by any of the signs, and for a selfless reason: 
"I'd rather believe that I won't be hurt by the signs. 
I'd rather believe that I won't, and if the Lord calls 
me out — well, it would be all right if I died by 
someone that hates the word, some man would kill 
me, or some government was to kill me because of 
serving the Lord. Now that would he all right, but 
I wouldn't want to die by a serpent or by any of 
the signs. I don't really want to be hurt by them 
because it don't really edify." 

Jimmy Williams, who also died in the signs (in 
his case, drinking strychnine) took a somewhat 
different stance. He pointed out that the verse in 
Mark said "they shall take up serpents," not "they 
shall not bite." He also felt that, if one died in fol- 
lowing God's Word, one would be doing just what 
the apostles did: "If you can keep your mind right 
on the Lord, well, God will move for you every 
time regardless of what it is. If a serpent bites you, 
you have to keep your mind right on the Lord; if 
you get your mind off the Lord, you'll swell up. 
Well, there have been people that died from ser- 



pent bites, but if you keep your mind right on the 
Lord, well, God will recover you. You won't have 
to suffer too much. But there's always been people 
who suffered for the gospel's sake. Just glad to be 
counted worthy." 

Another explanation offered by some believ- 
ers for being bitten is that it is a proof to unbelievers 
of the imminent danger. Byron Crawford, fonner as- 
sistant pastor of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ 
in Kingston, Georgia, holds that opinion: "I'm not 
trying to justify serpent bites and people getting hurt, 
but if I'd handled serpents, and all the serpent han- 
dling churches handled them all the time, and no- 
body ever got bit, and nobody ever suffered — the 
world out here would say, 'Hey, we can do that 
'cause they ain't getting hurt by them,' you know, 
'big deal.'" 

This perspective is rejected by Pastor Henry 
Swiney of Sneedville, Tennessee, who has handled 
serpents for some fifty years without getting hurt, al- 
though he has been bitten on some seven or eight 
occasions: "There come a man through Kentucky, 
said that if they didn't bite you and people didn't 
get hurt, they'd say that they didn't have no teeth. 
I say they don't know what they say; God knows 
about that." Pastor Swiney says that he always waits 
on the anointing: "Every time you feel good, you 
don't shout; and every time you feel good, you don't 
take up serpents. If you do, you're going to get bit one 
of these times when you're not anointed to do that 
job." But if he were bitten when he was anointed 
to handle a serpent, he confidently states: "I don't 
believe that I would die or I don't think it would 
hurt me." 

Many serpent handlers would agree. One of 
the members of Swiney 's congregation, however, 
was hurt by a serpent in a service in Kentucky. 



28 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Gerald Fleenor, the young minister who was bit- 
ten, feels he knows what went wrong: 

Well, I preached and I've been preached to that 
there's something to get a-hold of you and will 
take care of you, and no harm will come to you 
when you're handling serpents. And I've experi- 
enced that and I know that it's true. Now Brother 
Swiney was preaching that day that I got bit and 
he was preaching — and I never will forget it; as a 
matter of fact, I guess it was the next day in ICU 
[his family had put him in the hospital] when I 
thought about it — he was preaching on James 1 , 
on patience, having a perfect gift. Brother Swiney 
was handling them and maybe a few others, and I 
helieve it was Brother Swiney who said pour them 
out over where he was at. And I went over to the 
box, and instead of pouring them out (like he told 
me to), I wanted to handle them so bad 'cause it's a 
good feeling to get to handle them. And I guess I 
moved a little hit quick and got them out instead of 
waiting for that anointing to take care of me. And 
when I did, I knew what I had done (and 
shouldn't' ve done it) but before I could get them 
back up and get rid of it or give to someone who did 
have anointing in handling them, one bit me. 

As far as Gerald Fleenor is concerned, the experience 
taught him patience, but his belief is unchanged: "I 
still believe that a man can take them up and handle 
them, always will. I mean, I know that people miss 
at times and people get hit, people dies, and one 
thing or another, but it still doesn't change the 
word of God. I don't care who dies or whatever; 
it's still right." 

Byron Crawford believes in a "perfect" anoint- 
ment, that is, as he explains, "You can get in the 
power of God so strong that they ain't nothing can 



hurt you." He also believes that there is purpose in 
getting hurt other than proving the danger to un- 
believers; there is a reason relative to the believer 
as well: "It's a test of faith. God tries you some- 
times to see whether you're really gonna stand for 
him, and hold the faith or not. 'He that has suf- 
fered in the flesh has ceased from sin.' Now they is 
some suffering that we have to do, you know. I 
don't believe that that's all the suffering that you 
have to do; but sometimes it happens that way, 
and sometimes it don't." But dying in the signs is 
quite another matter to Crawford. Regarding the 
"deadly thing," he says, "I believe this much, that 
if you get hurt on the strychnine and you die, I be- 
lieve that you miss God, you know. I really believe 
that you missed him because it's not supposed to 
hurt you. And I've been hurt on the strychnine — 
I mean, I've had it to work on me; and it's not be- 
cause God let me down. It's 'cause I just didn't 
hold the faith like I should have." 

Bud Gregg talks about a condition similar to 
that mentioned by Crawford, in which the ser- 
pents cannot bite, when one is in the "perfect will 
of God." He tells of having serpents strike him nu- 
merous times, from one hand to the palm of the 
other, without being able to bite. He, however, has 
been bitten seven times, and one time he was hurt; 
but he also believes that if one is hurt, then some- 
thing is wrong. In his own situation, he had been 
told by God not to go to a particular place, but he 
went anyway: "I knew that I wasn't going to die. I 
knew that I was going to hurt some. I knew that I 
was going to suffer some, but it was for disobedience 
to the Spirit of God. And the Bible says, 'When the 
hedge is broken, the serpent will bite.' Disobedience 
is sin. What bteaks the hedge? Sin breaks the hedge." 
Gregg also believes in the handling of serpents by 








t/f// f<** 



rr 




Dewey Chafin, elder of the Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo (bitten over one hundred times). Photograph 1991 by 
Bill Snead. 



30 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



faith, as well as handling them by anointment, 
though his position is somewhat different from that 
of Charles: "Faith is good, and it's all right to work 
the works of God by faith, but we have something 
much greater than faith. We have the anointing of 
God. We have the Spirit of God. I believe we need 
to use it." 

To some believers in the signs, however, even 
being anointed is not foolproof. One must be sure of 
being "led by the Spirit" and not misinterpreting the 
anointment, lest mishap occur. Liston Pack, for ex- 
ample, says that it was his misinterpreting the anoint- 
ment that caused him on one occasion to be bit- 
ten: 

I know when I got bit, I was under the influ- 
ence that one [a serpent] couldn't bite you under 
the anointing, but I misunderstood the Scripture. 
They was a woman possessed of the devil. This 
woman, she was screaming out like she was a Chris- 
tian, dancing in the aisle — I knew better because 
God had showed me. But, see, I was hung up on 
serpent handling; I was wanting to handle that 
old black rattlesnake. Well, I got anointed really 
to cast the devil out. Well, on a Wednesday night, 
here I would go get him [the serpent] and I come out 
with him — I'm had to play with him, you know; I 
want to play with him, just toss him around, pitch 
him up and catch him. Well, he whopped around, 
and he hit me in the left hand behind the thumb. 
Whenever he bit me, I just pitched him, and he 
hit directly in that box. And I wrapped a handker- 
chief around my hand. And that Saturday night, I 
fasted and prayed; and God, he opened it up to me 
what I was supposed to have done. Well, believe 
it or not, I got anointed the same way Saturday 



night, and the same timber rattler was there, and I 
had the anointing come on me again. My hands 
drawed back, and I went in and pulled him out; 
and when I done that, the Lord spoke to me, said, 
"Put him up." 

Well, I just laid him back, and here that 
woman come down the aisle screaming. I just 
tapped her on the forehead, didn't have to 
pray all day because she went out like a light 
[i.e., she became unconscious when the evil 
spirit left her]. But if I'd did that the first time, I 
could have ignored that first bite — I sure could. 
But I was wanting to handle the snake. I wasn't 
wanting to help somebody else. 

Although some serpent handlers would dis- 
agree with Pack and say that the anointment is the 
same for all the signs, Dewey Chafin of Jolo, West 
Virginia, talks about the differences as well as the 
feeling he has if he fails to obey any anointing of 
the Spirit: 

And then if you don't really obey it, like following 
the Spirit of God — if you don't obey that, then 
you feel like you're spiritually dead. It ain't just 
takin' up serpents like that. Anything, like pray- 
ing for people, or anything that God wants you to 
do — it's a different anointin', but you get the same 
aftereffects, the feeling that you don't obey God. 
It's a little different feeling [the anointment to 
handle serpents]; it mostly works on my arms and 
my hands. The strychnine always works just in my 
stomach and my throat. When I get a taste in my 
mouth [if he doesn't get a bitter taste like strych- 
nine , he doesn't feel he is totally anointed], it's 
alright. 



Believers • 3 1 



He adds, "I can drink strychnine by faith just like 
I can handle serpents," that is, without the anoint- 
ment. Chafin, who has been bitten over one hun- 
dred times, believes that, when he is hurt by a ser- 
pent bite, it is a victory of the Devil, since the 
serpent to him is a visible part of the Devil. If, 
however, he were to die — and there have been 
times when he thought he might — it would not be 
a victory for the Devil because only God determines 



when a person dies. Chafin's conclusion about dying 
in the signs is: "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh 
away; blessed be the name of the Lord." 

Serpent handlers are, first of all, believers — 
believers in God and His word as presented in the 
Bible and through direct revelation. They are sign 
followers secondarily because of that belief, as well 
as recipients of spiritual gifts, witnesses of miracles, 
and acceptors of what they perceive as God's will. 




And 

these 

signs 

shall 

follow 



Where 

and 

When 

It All 

Started 



George Went Hensley is generally recognized as 
the founder of Christian serpent handling in mod- 
ern times and as the source of its wide dissemina- 
tion. Hensley may or may not have been the first 
person in the twentieth century to handle deadly 
serpents in obedience to a literal interpretation of 
the biblical text "they shall take up serpents," but 
he did lay claim to being the first. His first wife de- 
nied that claim, saying that George had seen some- 
one else take up serpents prior to handling them 
himself. The whole matter is something of a mys- 
tery. 

George's account of his initially taking up a poi- 
sonous serpent circulates widely. The general outline 
of the incident is that he went up into White Oak 
Mountain near Ooltewah, Tennessee, to a spot 
called Rainbow Rock. There he prayed for a divine 
sign to direct him how he should respond to the 
verse in St. Mark relative to serpents. Then indeed 
before him appeared a rattlesnake, which he picked 
up without being bitten. He descended the moun- 
tain and went to the Grasshopper Church of God. 
He entered with the serpent, and members of the 
congregation, following his example, took it up. 

He must have enjoyed telling about how it all 
happened, for his grandson Winifred Harden re- 
calls: 

He'd always tell us his tales and stories of what he 
experienced through prayin' and God giving him 
the courage to take it [the serpent] up, and he 
believed that in the Bible, that verse in Mark — 
when he got to that and he read it, the tale was he 
went out in the mountains and prayed and there 
was a rattlesnake and he handled it. I've heard 
him say this, "If you go to believe the Bible you 
gotta believe it from the front to the back. You 
can't cut out some pages and skip it." 



Where and When It All Started • 33 







George Went Hensley, generally credited with 
introducing serpent handling in the twentieth century. 
Photograph c. 1927 courtesy of La Creta Simmons. 

Homer Tomlinson, the son of A. J. Tomlinson, 
the first general overseer of the Church of God, gives 
other accounts of the initiation of serpent han- 
dling — apparently but not necessarily contradictory 
in the main. In The Shoutofa King Homer Tomlinson 
says: "The accounts which we will give will show 
that miracles of healing, and all the other signs in 
St. Mark 16-18, started right with me, or rather I 
should say I was present. This included the taking 
up of serpents, of raising the dead, of drinking deadly 
things, without hurt" (5). The account of serpent 
handling to which he obviously refers is given later 
in the description of events surrounding the con- 



version of Hensley: "We saw the wonder of the 
taking up of serpents in 1908. . . . Some of the 
people twelve miles south of Cleveland, in a com- 
munity called Owl Holler, having received the Holy 
Ghost, built a church, set a day to dedicate it. My 
father being away they asked me to come, preach 
the sermon of dedication" (39). At the conclusion 
of the afternoon service, Homer gave his "first call 
for sinners to come to the altar, kneel there and 
be saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy 
Ghost" (39-40). He says that five young men re- 
sponded; then he goes on to single out one of them: 

It is of a third one of the five from Owl Holler 
I would speak more particularly, whose name was 
George Hensley. Stirred in his soul to serve the 
Lord as fully as he had served with moonshine and 
outlaw gangs in those mountain scenes, shortly 
after his conversion went over in the next "Holler," 
set up a bnish arbor, lighted it with gasoline torches 
of those days, and began to preach. As in all our 
churches, he was preaching of the signs that would 
follow, and this, the third sign, of Mark 16:17-20, 
"They shall take up serpents." 

Possibly more in sport and rowdiness than in 
any sense of making a mockery of Hensley 's reli- 
gion, his moonshine and gambling cronies, some 
of whom were known to have taken part in actual 
killings, gathered a box full of deadly snakes of 
those parts, copperheads, water moccasins, rattle- 
snakes, turned them loose right in front of him 
where he was preaching. The audience scattered 
in terror, but George Hensley, in pure faith, the 
power of the Holy Ghost upon him, just stepped 
from the platform and began to gathet the serpents 
up in his arms, like a boy would gather stovewood 
in his arms to carry into the house. Continuing 
his preaching, and calling upon his old cronies to 
forsake their evil ways, turn to the Lotd and be 
saved from sin, he walked out toward them in the 
shadows outside the brush arbor, and they now 



34 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Family homecoming for George Hensley's first wife, Amanda, in 1946. Photograph courtesy of La Creta Simmons. 



fled in terror before him. He returned to his pul- 
pit, the whole crowd came back, and before this 
amazing miracle a revival broke out that brought 
thousands from everywhere. (39-42) 

The year given, 1908, and the circumstances 
described at the Owl Holler dedication may be ac- 
curate in most details. Homer Tomlinson in his 
later writings was seemingly given to exaggeration 
and self-aggrandizement. This propensity would 
make suspect such details as "brought thousands 
from everywhere" and "all the other signs ... I was 
present." But in the main, as Charles W. Conn, 
authot of an authoritative history of the Church 
of God, suggests, there is no ostensible reason to 
doubt Tomlinson's veracity in this report, espe- 
cially considering the circumstance of its being 



Tomlinson's second sermon. The year 1908 is the 
one Hensley himself gives for his conversion, and 
the role Tomlinson played in that conversion is at 
least suggested by a letter from Hensley's wife 
Amanda written to the church paper about her 
sanctification and reception of the Holy Ghost: "I 
began to pray for God to save my life and my soul. 
... I asked Him to spare my life till I found out 
what was the matter. Then I heard Bro. Homer 
Tomlinson preach and saw they had more of the 
Lord than I did. 1 began to trust the Lord from that 
time, and he has healed me, sanctified me and given 
me the Holy Ghost" (Church of God Evangel 4 April 
1914: 7). When these incidents occurred, or whether 
they occurred in conjunction with George's conver- 
sion, is not stated. Amanda apparently had been 



Where and When It All Started 



converted earlier, as had George, while attending 
a Baptist church, hut she did not choose to be bap- 
tized at that time. 

Even if the description of the Owl Holler ser- 
vice is basically accurate, that George Hensley first 
took up serpents as Tomlinson describes is another 
matter. Tomlinson says that shortly after the Owl 
Holler dedication Hensley set up a temporary brush 
arbor in the next hollow. J. C. Lamb, a resident of 
the Owl Holler area and a relative of George by mar- 
riage, says this site could be the brush arbor that 
George had set up in Scroggins Holler on the land 
owned by George's sister Jane and her husband. Even 
if the events at the brush arbor were nearby and 
"shortly after" the dedication service, the bringing in 
of serpents would strongly suggest that it was known 
that George already handled serpents. The incident 
could have been preceded by the traditionally re- 
ported experience at White Oak Mountain. 
Tomlinson does not say that he himself was at the 
brush arbor; it is likely that the account is an an- 
ecdote he was told and did in fact occur, but not in 
the sequence Tomlinson gives. In that case, Hensley 
could have first handled a serpent at White Oak 
Mountain soon after his conversion in 1908 and 
the brush arbor story might be a fusion of the Grass- 
hopper church incident with one of any number of 
situations that occurred later, perhaps years later. 

There are other details in Tomlinson's account 
that are difficult to reconcile. Some seem inexpli- 
cable. Following the description of Hensley at the 
brush arbor, Tomlinson says, "I did not hesitate to 
publish this in our church paper" (Shout of a King 
42). If he means these particular incidents were 
published in 1908 or soon thereafter, he would be 
referring to their being in the church's evangelis- 
tic paper The Way. Unfortunately, relevant issues 



of The Way are not available, but reports of George 
may have been included in it. If he means simply 
that he did print references to Hensley's serpent 
handling, he could be referring to later editorials 
in the Evangel, which he published while serving 
as his father's assistant. Since Hensley had been 
converted but had not become a member of the 
Church of God in 1908, Tomlinson may not have 
known much about his activities until 1914 when 
George held a meeting at the South Tabernacle in 
Cleveland. Tomlinson, therefore, may be generally 
correct about the circumstances in which he him- 
self was involved but inaccurate in regard to those 
activities of his convert where he was not person- 
ally present. 

One would expect that the diary of his father, 
which Homer Tomlinson edited, would clarify these 
questions about the initiation of serpent handling. 
Instead, although there are relevant entries, they 
do not resolve the problems: 

[13 Jan. 1908]. Also the 16th of Mark came up, 
these signs shall follow, dwelling on casting out 
devils, speaking in tongues and taking up serpents. 
[What brought up the subject of the signs? Was it 
initiated because of the actions of some individual, 
specifically Hensley?] 

[4 Aug. 1908.] God wonderfully confirmed the 
word with signs following. [Although there is no 
mention of serpents , was the confirmation by speaking 
in tongues only or by other signs as well, including the 
taking up of serpents?] 

[26 Nov. 1908.] During my sermon I broke down 
and went to crying, and the Holy Ghost caught up 
Homer, my own son, and he went to preaching in 
tongues. [How does this relate to the date of Homer's 
second sermon, u'hich "shortly" anteceded George's 
handling serpents? Would there be a distinction be- 



36 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Amanda Mertila Wininger, George Hensley' s first 
wife. Photograph courtesy of J. R. Hensley. 



tvoeen "preaching in tongues" and standing before a 
congregation and preaching a "complete" sermon.'] 

[4 Jan. 1909.] Homer is wonderfully used by the 
Holy Ghost. Preached one sermon. [Did Homer or 
A.J. preach the sermon?] {journal oj Happenings, 
unnumbered) 

Other considerations regarding the date that 
Hensley first took up serpents revolve more around 
his religious status. At the time of his conversion 
he may or may not have received the Holy Ghost 
as Tomlinson said he did; hut the handling of ser- 
pents, as Charles Conn agrees, could have come 



immediately after conversion in 1908 as a result of 
his believing that Mark 16:18 applied to him as a 
believer. He may well have handled serpents prior 
to 1910 when he was starting to preach, abstain- 
ing from tobacco, and "resorting to the Bible way 
for healing" or before becoming a member of the 
Church of God in 1912 or being baptized by the 
Church of God in 1913. As Conn suggests, the 
baptism of the Holy Spirit would almost certainly 
have been confirmed by the speaking in tongues, 
but the handling of serpents at that time could 
have preceded or followed sanctification, Holy Spirit 
baptism, or coming "to see the light" in matters of 
personal conduct. As an example, Harvey Grant, 
who was a convert of Hensley and who handled 
serpents before he was baptized, says: "I took them 
up when I just repented, didn't even have the Holy 
Ghost." Being a preacher would also not necessar- 
ily have been associated with whether one took up 
serpents, nor would becoming a member of the 
Church of God. As Conn states: "There was very 
little pressure about becoming a member of the 
Church of God at that time. It is most believable 
that he [Hensley] would want to keep himself apart 
from an organization, to keep associated with the 
Independent churches. That was not uncommon." 
Family stories also provide important infor- 
mation in establishing where and when George's 
serpent handling began. J. C. Lamb remembers 
George's sister Jane saying that the serpent han- 
dling got started "right over here," meaning near 
her house, which would have included Rainbow 
Rock, Owl Holler, and Scroggins Holler. All these 
were on or adjacent to her land. Her statement 
might also apply only to her brother's first picking 
up a serpent, or it might include his introducing 
the belief to a group of worshipers. Lamb also re- 



Where and When It All Started • 37 



members Jane's daughter, his mother-in-law, say- 
ing specifically that George handled serpents be- 
fore she was born, which would have been prior to 
January 1912. (There is a record in the 18 Septem- 
ber 1915 Evangel of a Jane Hensley of Loudon, Ten- 
nessee, likely George's mother, receiving the Holy 
Ghost in 1912, a date which may or may not have 
relevancy to George's religious experiences.) 

There is additional support from interviews with 
George that the initial act of his taking up a ser- 
pent did indeed occur at White Oak Mountain 
"shortly after" his 1908 conversion. Chattanooga 
newspaperman J. B. Collins, for example, talked 
with George and gives the following account. 

This strange cult originated one summer day 
in 1909 atop White Oak Mountain. This cradle of 
the snake-handling sect forms the eastern rim of 
Grasshopper valley, and its slopes the banks of 
winding Tennessee River. 

On this particular day, George Hensley, a 
small hut powerfully-built man in his early thir- 
ties, decided to settle once and for all a matter of 
great importance to him. . . . The first phrase in 
St. Mark 16:18 had caused him much spiritual 
unrest. . . . this, he felt, was a command spoken by 
Jesus after resurrection and just before His ascen- 
sion. 

Hensley had never taken up serpents, yet he 
believed that if he was to receive eternal life after 
death he must do so. His decision was to risk his life 
in order to have rest from his spiritual burden. . . . 

In a great rocky gap in the mountainside he 
found what he sought, a large rattlesnake. He 
approached the reptile, and . . . knelt a few feet 
away from it and prayed loudly into the sky for 
God to remove his fear and to anoint him with 
"the power." Then suddenly with a shout he 
leaped forward and grasped the reptile and held it 
in trembling hands. . . . 



His first evangelistic endeavor was in Grass- 
hopper valley, which he entered within a few days 
after his encounter with the mountain rattle- 
snake. (Tennessee Snake Handlers 1-2) 

Harvey Grant, Hensley 's serpent-handling as- 
sociate during the 1940s, gives a similar account 
but in a different time of year: 

And Uncle George when he first took up the 
serpent, he was up there in Owl Holler, Tennes- 
see. And his wife was readin' that "They shall take 
up serpents," and he said, "Wait a minute, honey," 
said, "I'll be back directly." And he went up in the 
hollow a little ways, and they's about a three-four- 
inch snow on the ground. And he reached back 
[made] an altar; and he said he went to prayin' 
and askin' God, said, "Now, this must mean I can 
handle serpents, you let one come a-crawlin' out 
of that snow." Uncle George said he didn't know 
how long it'd been, but he looked up and there's 
one comin' out of that snow. He said, "It's just as 
pure and white as snow." 

Both of these retellings, with the exception of 
the season, agree almost verbatim with one given 
by Perry Bettis, the last active serpent handler in 
Grasshopper Valley. A somewhat later date is given 
in another personal account by reporter K. Kerman. 
In a 1938 story for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Kerman 
states that Hensley "says he started the snake han- 
dling rite 28 years ago in Sale Creek, Tennessee" 
(11) — that is, in 1910, near Birchwood and the 
Grasshopper Church of God. 

Although there is strong evidence that Hensley's 
serpent handling began during the period 1908-10, 
there is good reason to think that it occurred three 
or four years later. The earliest record, for example, 



38 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



of serpent handling in the official Church of God 
paper the Evangel (which began in 1910) appears 
in an editorial on 24 January 1914- The editor, 
A. J. Tomlinson, implies that it was during 1913 
that this sign had been "slightly demonstrated." He 
makes no reference to any experiences with ser- 
pent handlers of fellow gospel preacher J. B. Ellis 
in 1912 (M. Crews 84), although he does include 
a report in 1914 from Ellis, who attested to "con- 
siderable experience with those who take up ser- 
pents" (9 May: 8). In a 1916 editorial (August 26: 1) 
Tomlinson says that he supposed hundreds had 
taken up serpents "in the last two or three years," 
i.e., 1913 or 1914. His calculation refers solely to 
the activity of "our people," the Church of God, 
although he consistently considers the sign of han- 
dling serpents as following only members of the 
Church of God. Hensley would have been in- 
cluded in these figures since he became a member in 

1912. It would appear at first that Tomlinson's edito- 
rial would set the origin of serpent handling in 

1913, but the emphasis of Tomlinson's statement 
is not on the date serpent handling was initiated. 
Rather, his focus is on the prevalence of the prac- 
tice without harm among the members of the 
Church of God. In fact there is no direct reference 
in the Evangel to the first time a sign-following be- 
liever took up a serpent. 

There is additional support, however, in sev- 
eral newspaper accounts for 1913 being the year 
Hensley initiated serpent handling. Reported per- 
sonal interviews in 1936 state: '"I've been han- 
dling serpents for 23 years,' he said"; and "Hensley 
said in his 23 years of snake-handling demonstra- 
tions . . ." ("Preacher Juggles Snake" 1; Abbott 1). 

On the other hand, there are newspaper stories 
that infer other dates. An eyewitness to Hensley's 



death in 1955 writes in an article published in 1973: 
"His followers said Hensley, 56 years ago [i.e., in 
1899 if this means prior to his death], picked up a rat- 
tler in Tennessee's Grasshopper Valley and it didn't 
bite him" (Kimsey D9). Another report states: 
"George W. Hensley, 70 years old, started the snake 
rites when he was 14," i.e., in 1899 if calculated 
on his being "70 years old" in 1955 ("Snake Kills 
Cultist" 12). 

Apparently there is no contemporary document 
that directly establishes the time of Hensley's first 
taking up a serpent. (Homer Tomlinson's book was 
not written until 1967.) What seems to be the first 
contemporary citation of Hensley's handling ser- 
pents is one that records the Cleveland revival of 
August 1914 (Evangel 12 Sept. 1914: 6; 19 Sept.: 
2-3). It is likely that this revival is the one Homer 
Tomlinson describes immediately following his ac- 
count of the brush arbor incident, although he does 
not date the occasion: 

Enemies, however, took this occasion to bring in 
deadly serpents, seeking to discredit The Church 
of God in Cleveland. Only a single serpent was 
brought in, tempting Hensley, when of a sudden 
the power of the Holy Ghost came upon him, and 
he reached into the box and took up the viscious 
[sic] rattlesnake, and it became docile in his hand. 
Others, including my sister, Iris, in some amazing 
testimony that this sign would also follow them 
which believed, anointed by the Holy Ghost, and 
acting beyond their own volition, one by one took 
the serpent, and from hand to hand. The serpent 
remained docile, and before hundreds of wit- 
nesses, all without hurt, the four-foot rattler was 
then returned to the box, and was later taken out 
and destroyed. (Shout of a King 42) 

The juxtaposition in Homer's mind of the brush 
arbor incident and the Cleveland revival may sug- 



Where and When It All Started • 39 



1 




> 


■M 




George Hensley, center, seemingly around thirty years 
old with an unidentified man and woman (perhaps his 
sister Bertha). Photograph courtesy of La Creta 
Simmons. 



gest that the former event, where he says serpent 
handling began, occurred in 1913 or 1914. 

There are other references to Hensley 's han- 
dling serpents in 1914- Articles in the Chattanooga 
Daily Times of that year report his conducting a tent 
meeting at Ooltewah in which a serpent was handled 
by "fifteen or twenty 'believers'" ("Reptile in the 
Meetin'" 3). But George could have been handling 
serpents much earlier. These articles follow the 
Cleveland, Tennessee, meeting, which would have 
drawn the attention of city papers to the sign follow- 
ers, who otherwise might have escaped notice. Af- 



ter all, these were farmers in a remote area where 
travel was basically still by foot or horse-drawn ve- 
hicle. (Even when serpent-handling was re-estab- 
lished in that area thirty years later, the Chatta- 
nooga press did not pick it up tor several years, and 
then only by chance [Collins, Tennessee Snake Han- 
dlers 17].) 

As rewarding as it would be to know exactly 
where and when George Hensley first took up a 
serpent — or whether in fact he initiated the prac- 
tice — the solution to the mystery remains elusive. 
If one were writing a novel, one could choose any 
of several plots. As good a scenario as any might 
be that George, a relatively young married man of 
mountain stock who had not remained completely 
faithful to his strong religious background, hears 
during the late summer or early fall of 1908 another 
even younger man speaking in strange tongues and 
preaching about miraculous signs that would follow 
believers, such as taking up serpents without harm. 
He hears and believes. He feels that the preacher 
has "more of the Lord" than anyone he has ever 
heard, and he answers the altar call. But he goes 
away puzzled though fascinated by the words of 
Jesus in St. Mark about handling serpents. He has 
seen some of his drinking buddies do anything on 
a dare, even pick up a snake; and he resolves that 
if it is meant for him to take up serpents, the Lord 
will somehow direct him. 

To continue this scenario: time passes — per- 
haps that fall or the next summer or fall, he goes 
up into the mountain to pray, still puzzled about 
the verse in St. Mark. He feels the power of God 
upon him, sees a rattlesnake, takes it up, and is not 
bitten. The Lord has spoken to him. Later he goes 
several miles down the road to a church that be- 
longs to the same organization that the inspiring 



40 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



young preacher belonged ro. There George testi- 
fies of his personal experience and manifests God's 
revelation to him hy handling a serpent. Others 
believe, and some follow his example. Periodically 
during the summer months, serpents are handled. 
Then, in the summer of 1910, he is called to 
preach; in 1912 he joins the Church of God, which 
was responsible for showing him the way. He finds 
that he has no trouble drawing an audience — even 
in brush arbors on his sister's land — when he 
preaches on the text, "They shall take up serpents." 
Crowds of hecklers and others come to see him prove 
his belief. In 1914, news finally gets to the head- 
quarters of the Church of God, whose general over- 



seer — the father of the very same young man whose 
altar call he had answered only a few years ear- 
lier — invites George to come and preach in Cleve- 
land. He goes. His reputation as a snake handler 
precedes him. He is again tested by unbelievers 
and has "victory" over death. Even the overseer's 
own daughter takes up serpents. Others, who have 
already been filled with the Holy Ghost and spo- 
ken in tongues, see handling serpents as another sign 
of the Spirit confirming the word and the church. 
The papers hear about what is going on and eat it 
up — the best show in town. The believers go forth, 
the signs following them. And it all started with 
George Hensley. 



And 
these 



George 
Hensley 



If George Went Hensley had been as dedicated to 

3 other areas of experience, particularly domestic life, 

as to his religious practices, his influence on the 
ritual of serpent handling would no doubt have 
been entirely different. 

It is not certain when Hensley first came into 
the Owl Holler area near Ooltewah, Tennessee, 
where he apparently took up his first serpent. In 

1880 his family, according to the United States 

shall 

Census, was living further east in the Watterson 

lOIlOW community of Hawkins County. George told his 

son Loyal that he was originally from West Vir- 
ginia (corroborated by Loyal's birth certificate but 
invalidated by another certificate that lists Scott 
County, Virginia; perhaps George's spotted career 
had something to do with the discrepancies). 
George's grandparents were from Tennessee as well, 
and his statement to Loyal that the Hensleys further 
back had come from Pennsylvania may very well 
be true since settlers commonly migrated from that 
state down the Shenandoah Valley. 

George's family probably moved by the time he 
was ten years old from Hawkins County to Loudon 
County. His sister Jane married James Brown of 
Loudon County around 1890, and it was there that 
George married Amanda Wininger in 1901 (the 
year after he had given up his membership in the 
Baptist church), and apparently it was his mother 
who was writing from there to the Evangel in 1915. 

George's sister and her husband moved to 
Ooltewah near Chattanooga, where they purchased 
some four hundred acres of land, mainly for the 
timber. Brown made good money as a molder in a 
Chattanooga foundry during the week and as a saw- 
mill man weekends on his land in Ooltewah. George 
and his wife moved to the Browns' farm and lived 
there in a shack where George could work in the 



42 * Serpent-Handling Believers 




George Hensley with his sister Bertha Weaver when 
she was a minister of the Church of God in Cleveland, 
Ohio, c. 1931 . Photograph courtesy of Grace Cook. 



lumbering business with his brother-in-law, as well 
as in the local mines digging ore for use in paint. 
George's small stature contributed to his efficiency 
as a miner and was not detrimental to his other 
occupation, which was common to the area — 
moonshining. 

Whether his mother, Susan Jane, was living 
with his father, Emanual, at the time is unknown. 
The mother was ill and apparently living with her 
daughter Jane in 1919 when another daughter, Ber- 
tha, returned to Ooltewah to visit her {Evangel 1 
Feb.: 2). Jane Brown's daughter Grace Cook recalls 
as a child seeing her grandfather Hensley, but he 
and her grandmother had apparently already sepa- 
rated. George's mother moved to Ohio (perhaps 
after her illness) to live with Bertha, whose daugh- 



ter Dorothy says about her grandfather Ernanual, 
"He chased women" — an interesting comment as 
one thinks about George's life. 

George's sister Jane was a devoutly religious 
person who knew her Bible, and her son was later 
a song leader and singing-school master. His sister 
Bertha was a Church of God preacher. The strong 
religious influence on the family must have come 
from their mother, a woman who is cited as send- 
ing five dollars to the Church of God tabernacle 
building fund late in her life during a time when 
money was hard to come by (Evangel 1 Jan. 1916: 
3). 

Some ten years after George's maniage to 
Amanda he was preaching, later pastoring in Cleve- 
land and in Birchwood; then in another ten years 
he had "backslid." Fourteen years after his Owl 
Holler conversion, Hensley had slipped from his 
godly life and fallen into some of his former activi- 
ties, including drinking, and abandoned his fam- 
ily. He resigned his ministry in the Church of God 
and left the Ooltewah and Birchwood area. The 
reason as stated on a Revocation of Ministry form 
by Tennessee Overseer M. W. Litzinger is: "re- 
signed — has much trouble in the home." 

There are several versions of the immediate 
cause of his leaving, but the account by his son 
Roscoe, who was seven years old at the time, places 
the blame on George. Roscoe 's mother Amanda, the 
other children, and Roscoe were returning from 
church one evening and saw George sitting on the 
bank at the side of the road, drunk. George made 
certain accusations that culminated in a fight with 
another man. Later that evening George said that 
Amanda could have the children. She left for Chat- 
tanooga the next day, where she found work with 
a hosiery mill, which provided housing and other 



George Hensley • 43 



necessities for her and the six children. George left 
for parts unknown, hut a mailing address for him 
that year was at his sister's home in Walhridge, 
Ohio. 

Even before he left, George was a poor pro- 
vider for his family. His son Roscoe remembers 
that he held revivals locally, as well as all up and 
down the Tennessee River valley. He apparently 
never really owned a house, except a shack he and 
one of his sons built later on to live in for a short 
period of time. Sometimes, as his daughter Jean re- 
members, they lived in the church buildings. Once 
they lived upstairs in the back of the church, an- 
other time in a space separated from the worship 
area by quilts. In 1918, when he was the first pas- 
tor of the East Chattanooga Church of God, he 
may have lived in a parsonage, as he did later in the 
Birch wood area. But when the weather allowed, he 
was out evangelizing. 

Soon after Amanda's move to Chattanooga, 
according to Roscoe, she became bedridden and 
incapable of supporting the family. She and the 
children were assisted for a while by George's sis- 
ter and husband from Birchwood who came to live 
with them. Later Amanda and her children were 
to return and live in the Birchwood area. As Roscoe 
remembers, George made only one visit to the fam- 
ily in Chattanooga; he came by and gave the chil- 
dren a ride in a car. George wrote Amanda for a 
divorce; but he was, for all practical purposes, out 
of touch with the family for about twenty years. 

A short part of that time George spent in a 
county jail. He had gone back to moonshining with 
a black man, was caught for selling liquor, con- 
victed, and on 27 March 1923 was fined one hun- 
dred dollars and sentenced to four months in jail. 
According to Roscoe, his father had served most 




George Hensley with his second wife, Irene 
Klunzinger, on her father' s farm in Ohio. Photograph 
c. 1927 courtesy of La Creta Simmons. 

of his time in the workhouse at Silverdale near 
Chattanooga when one day, being sent off for a 
bucket of water, he did not return. He hid out in 
the mountains above his sister's farm in Ooltewah 
where he had grown up; and although law officers 
looked for him there, he was not captured. 

There is a curious entry in the Hamilton Crimi- 
nal Court docket noting that a George Hensley was 
found not guilty of selling liquor on 8 May 1923, a 
month after George's incarceration. There are some 
questions about the entry; but apparently it would 
not be at all impossible, considering court proce- 
dures of that time and place, that George could 
have been charged a second time without being 
detected as a fugitive. 

George turns up next in Ohio, where he prob- 



44 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



ably went to visit his sister Bertha Weaver and his 
brother. It was not too long until he was back to 
preaching, holding revivals, and faith healing. He 
may have been preaching at the Salvation Army 
in Cleveland where he met one of the workers, an 
attractive young woman, Irene Klunzinger. She be- 
lieved she bore a curse placed on her while in her 
mother's womb by a Gypsy her mother had caught 
stealing. Irene thought Hensley could cure her, 
and apparently the family did too at first. He did 
not, but he did marry her. Irene was twenty-two, 
George almost forty-seven. Irene's family were very 
religious, staunch German Lutherans originally, liv- 
ing on a well-managed, prosperous hundred-acre 
farm. It seems that George was instrumental in 
their becoming Pentecostals themselves for a while, 
hoping that their daughter's problems would be mi- 
raculously removed. 

Irene and George went to live in Washington- 
ville, Ohio, where George's brother was and where 
George could get a job in the coal mines. Faith, 
their first daughter, was born while they were liv- 
ing there. Several years later when their second 
child, Loyal, was born, they were living in 
Malvern, Ohio. Irene and George began to have 
trouble off and on; and according to her sister, 
seven or so years after they were manied, Irene re- 
turned home for an extended period of time. Accord- 
ing to family members, George would always 
"sweet talk" her into returning. It is not difficult to 
imagine what the Klunzingers later felt about their 
daughter's maniage to a southern Holiness serpent- 
handling faith healer who did not take to keeping 
a job. Irene's sister Lavern remembers her parents 
saying that George would find some way to make 
money so he would not have to work. She also re- 



members her mother continually making clothes 
and sending them for Irene's needy children. 

Through correspondence with Irene, however, 
Mrs. Klunzinger received a worse impression of 
George than simply of a person who did not want 
to work. As a result of that correspondence some 
members of the Klunzinger family have come to 
think of George as a charismatic but evil, perverted, 
hypocritical man. Lavern states directly, "My sis- 
ter went through living hell." Even Loyal's impres- 
sion of his father is that George was not a very re- 
ligious person. Loyal considers that his mother Irene 
was a genuinely devout person devoted to Christian 
living and who tried to convince George to be the 
same. She would read the Bible to George, assist in 
the services by reading the scriptures for him, and en- 
courage him in living the Christian life; but to Loyal's 
thinking as a boy, George was not devout. He did 
not spend a lot of time praying, fasting, or doing 
good works, nor did he seem particularly interested 
in helping others. When the deacons came, Loyal 
says, it was a different story. Then he would put 
on an extremely religious appearance, but when 
they left, he "would take it off like a coat." 

What particularly caused family problems seems 
to be his not working to support the family. Although 
he did apparently have several jobs while living in 
the northeastern area of Ohio, this problem con- 
tinued to be a bone of contention. It is interesting 
that on Loyal's birth certificate George is listed, 
not as a minister, but as a laborer. Loyal thinks his 
father worked at the brickyard. One of his jobs, 
according to an incident recounted to Loyal, re- 
sulted in George's being electrocuted by high-volt- 
age lines but being brought back to life by prayer. 

George continued his evangelism, even hold- 



George Hensky • 45 



ing a meeting near Toledo at the Church of God 
his sister Bertha pastored in Walhridge. That meet- 
ing included the handling of serpents. Bertha herself 
did not personally take up serpents, although she did 
assist George in his preaching. She would read a 
scripture and George would expound upon it, the 
same method he employed with Irene and earlier 
with Amanda. Apparently George could not read 
anything, even road maps. Some of the family are 
not sure whether he could write his name. Loyal 
remembers his father saying that he had gone to 
school three days but had been kicked out and had 
never returned. George preached in an oral tradi- 
tion in which the preacher calls for a particular 
scripture, sometimes interrupting the reader in or- 
der to repeat it, then expounding on the word, 
phrase, or passage before proceeding. 

George's wanderlust, however, never subsided 
for long. In 1932 he returned to his home ground 
in the Southern Appalachians, across the Tennes- 
see border in Kentucky. "With the help of Jim Jack- 
son, a local Holiness man, he built a 'free Pentecos- 
tal' house of worship, the 'East Pineville Church of 
God,' and installed himself as pastor" (Kane, "Snake 
Handlers of Southern Appalachia" 60). Three years 
later, in July, a daughter, Jean, was born at nearby 
Pennington Gap, Virginia. In August, George re- 
portedly lived not far away in St. Charles and was 
going out from there preaching and handling ser- 
pents. One of these expeditions found him along 
the highway near Norton, Virginia, before some 
five hundred "followers," where a rather bizarre in- 
cident occurred. A serpent as it was passed among 
various handlers was seized by a twelve-year-old 
boy who tore its head off, and a "near riot" ensued 
("Wave Rattler in Frenzy" 17). It was in the year 
following this incident, according to an implica- 



tion by a 1944 article in Newsweek, that Hensley 
was responsible for the institution of serpent han- 
dling in Stone Creek, Virginia (near St. Charles), 
as well as in the adjoining area: "It was in 1936 
that George Hensley of Harlan County, Ky., estab- 
lished the weird cult among the miners and farm- 
ers of southwestern Virginia on the Tennessee bor- 
der" ("They Shall Take Up Serpents," Newsweek 
88). 

Soon afterward, Hensley constructed a house 
trailer and left with the family for Georgia and 
Florida. His son Loyal tells the story of their cross- 
ing the Tampa Bay Bridge and having the side of 
the trailer torn off by an oncoming truck. On 1 
March 1936 the family was in Tampa with George 
preaching and handling a rattlesnake during a mis- 
sion service before a group of some 125 persons in 
a vacant store. The themes of his sermons included 
abstaining from lipstick, gambling, drunkenness — 
and even baseball games. He also answered a com- 
mon charge against serpent handlers: "They say it's 
tempting the Lord. Well, don't you know the Bible 
says the Lord can't be tempted, and don't it say for 
the servants of God to handle serpents?" He talked 
about faith: "The first chapter of James tells what 
it takes to handle serpents. It just takes faith with- 
out wavering. Listen, the Bible says he who wavers 
is like a wave of the sea." Hensley, however, did 
not handle serpents solely by faith: "When they 
brought that snake in here a few minutes ago . . . 
the spirit was working. I'd have handled it then 
but the box was closed. I'll handle it when the 
spirit works again." It did and he handled it, as did 
three others, but the snake got loose and caused 
quite an excitement before being caught. In his 
sermon Hensley also implied that the reason for 
handling serpents is that it is a modern manifesta- 



46 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



tion of Old Testament deliverance by the Lord, 
such as Daniel from the lion's den, the three He- 
brew children from the fiery furnace, and Jonah 
from the belly of the whale: "But you don't know 
that," he said. "That was before your time. I'll show 
you something in your time. I'll show you how to 
handle a rattlesnake, and you all know the result 
of rattlesnakes." The newspaper description of 
Hensley is noteworthy as well: "a quiet little man 
with gray hair, wiped the perspiration from his fore- 
head and went about the congregation to shake hand 
[sic]" ("Pastor Here Whirls Snake" 1,12). 

Hensley moved on about twenty miles south- 
east of Tampa to a trailer camp in Bloomingdale. 
At a county church nearby he held services before 
a congregation so large that he had to move out- 
side the building to a roped-off area with a make- 
shift pulpit ("Preacher Juggles Snake" 1, 8). In the 
course of handling a rattlesnake purchased by an 
individual from a local cannery, Hensley was bit- 
ten twice. He showed the bites to the crowd, ex- 
plaining that he would not seek medical attention. 
The man at the cannery who sold the rattlesnake 
was reported as regretting that he sold the serpent, 
but he also indicated a personal response that must 
have been common: "Hensley is extremely fervent 
in his religious belief to the degree that I person- 
ally believe he sincerely believes that his faith pro- 
tects him from the effects of the snake venom" 
("Snake Expert Warns People" 7). 

Hensley 's plan was to go west into Georgia be- 
fore returning to Tampa. The next report of his 
evangelistic efforts, however, finds him conduct- 
ing a tent revival east of Tampa at Bartow the last 
of April and early May. For the first time, George 
witnessed death by serpent bite. At a Sunday evening 
service, Alfred D. Weaver, a thirty-five-year-old itin- 



erant strawberry picker and shoe peddler, was bit- 
ten by a rattlesnake and died the following day. 
Hensley believed the man would recover: '"He was 
bitten because he was not quite ready for the dem- 
onstration of the power. ... He will get all right. I 
have seen people bitten twice as worse'" (Abbott 
1). Hensley said that he himself had been bitten 
two hundred times and as a result had only been 
slightly ill once. The day of Weaver's death, the 
Bartow city commission passed an ordinance against 
anyone's transporting, exhibiting, or handling in pub- 
lic an unpenned poisonous serpent ("Fatal Snake 
Bite" 1). After Hensley conducted the funeral ser- 
vice, he and the family likely went as reportedly 
planned to the western part of the state before re- 
turning to Ohio ("County Buries Snake Victim" 
7). 

Once they anived in Ohio, they left Loyal with 
Irene's sister in Cleveland so that he could go to 
school, and then they returned to Pineville, Ken- 
tucky, to which they would move back and forth 
several times. In 1938 George was reported as a 
railroad conductor and again pastor of the East 
Pineville Church of God. He was also arrested and 
"charged with breach of the peace in handling 
snakes" along with two other men at the Pine Moun- 
tain Church of God in Harlan County (Kerman, 
"Rattlesnake Religion," Post 10). The following 
year he was holding revivals and handling serpents 
in Knoxville, Tennessee. In a few more years Hensley 
moved his family to Duff, Tennessee, where accord- 
ing to Loyal he bought a farm. Loyal remembers they 
were living there when Pearl Harbor was bombed, 
but George was soon on the move again — this time 
to Evansville, Indiana. Here he was separated from 
Irene. According to Loyal he did something "real 
bad," bad enough for Irene to threaten him with 



George Hensley • 47 




George Hensley' s granddaughter La Creta, on the left, and his children by Irene (Loyal, Faith, Jean, Vinette), who 
were reared together by George and Amanda' s daughter Esther Lee. Photograph courtesy of La Creta Simmons. 



being arrested — "a prison offense." One problem 
they had was the old one of George's failure to 
keep a job. Loyal says his mother permitted George 
to return when he promised to get work but soon 
realized that she had made a mistake. 

The work was apparently back in Pineville be- 
cause that's where George, Irene, and all four of 
their children moved, but the marriage was not to 
last much longer. Loyal says that a significant fac- 
tor in the breakup was George's wanting to put the 
children in an orphanage so that he and Irene would 
be free to evangelize. And the evangelizing always 
went on. 

One of the houses in Pineville where the Hensleys 
lived had a high porch with banisters from which 
George fell and broke both arms while reaching 



out to pick some apples. It was about the time of 
this accident that Irene wrote about her marital 
problems to one of George's daughters of his first 
marriage, Esther Lee. Esther Lee and a sister vis- 
ited their father and saw for themselves that things 
were not going well. 

In 1943, shortly after that visit, George again 
left Irene and his second family, which by now had 
lasted sixteen years. Irene with two of the older 
children went to stay, not back at home in Ohio, 
but in Chattanooga with Esther Lee. One of the 
children, Vinette, was retrieved from Kentucky by 
two other daughters of George's first maniage. Jean, 
the youngest of the four, was also left in Kentucky 
until she was taken to the home of Franklin, a son of 
the first marriage, before rejoining her mother at 



48 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Lewis Ford' s funeral service at the Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs Following; co-founders of the church, 
George Hensley (to the left of "Boots" Parker, handling a serpent) and Raymond Hays (above Hensley), were later 
also to die from serpent bite. Photograph 1945 by J. C. Collins, identifications by Flora Bettis. 



Esther Lee's home. At first some of the children 
stayed at times with Esther Lee and other times with 
her sister Rosa, switching hack and forth from one 
house to the other. Winifred, Rosa's son, describes 
the situation: "So, that left all the kids in here. Just 
different ones, you know, raised them." Irene was 
going to stay at Esther Lee's until she could work 
something out to support the children, but before 
she was able to, she died of a heart attack follow- 
ing goiter surgery. Esther Lee and her husband, 
Luther, took legal custody of the children. At some 
point George did come for the children; but, when 



given the choice to go with him, they decided to 
stay. Fortunately, George's first family (even Amanda) 
was always good to the second, including the second 
wife. Half-sisters and half-brothers became mother, 
uncles, and aunts; and cousins became brothers and sis- 
ters. 

George also left Kentucky for Tennessee, pri- 
marily the Ooltewah and Birchwood area, staying 
with different people — his sister Rosa and, prob- 
ably, relatives on Jane Brown's farm. When Irene 
died, he came to view the body, but after that he 
had virtually no contact with his second family, 



George Hensley • 49 




Tom Harden, pastor of the Dolley Pond Church, with his wife, Rosa, children, and mother (in the background). 
Photograph c. 1945 by J. C. Collins, identifications by Flora Bettis. 



nor with his first one for that matter. He contin- 
ued evangelizing. 

Serpent handling in the Birchwood area dur- 
ing George's absence apparently had subsided. Perry 
Bettis said: "It continued maybe ten, twelve years, 
maybe fifteen year. Then old man Luther Morrow 
tried to carry it on by himself and it just kept a- 
gettin' worse and worse and worse on him, droppin' 
off here, drop off there, this 'n quit and that 'n quit; 



and first thing you knowd there weren't nobody 
but that poor old fella and four or five left, you 
know. Some of them had died off and some of them 
had left and changed over to Jesus Name [baptiz- 
ing in "the name of Jesus," rather than "the name 
of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit"], and that bmng 
a split, division between the people." Religious atti- 
tudes toward following the signs also changed. Even 
the Grasshopper Church of God preached against 



50 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Some principal members of the Dolley Pond Church: 
George Hensley (left), Lewis Ford (in overalls), Jim 
Posey, Luther Morrow, Minnie Parker, "Boots" Parker 
(perhaps the B. A. Parker who died of serpent bite in 
1946). Photograph 1945 by J. C. Collins, identifications 
b\ Flora Beltis. 



Facing page.Minnie Parker's beautiful face famed with 
a rattlesnake. Photograph 1947 by J. C. Collins, 



handling serpents and turned people out who be- 
lieved in it. Perry Bettis told about Mark Braddam's 
being "run off' and going up to the window of the 
church, where he stuck his head in and proclaimed 
what may have been George Hensley's belief as 
well: "Every one of you is gonna go to hell if you 
fail to believe that this is right; I'm not telling you, 
you have to do it; but it is written and you got to 
believe it." 

According to J. B. Collins, the dormant period 
began with Garland Defriese's having a bad expe- 
rience in 1918 with a serpent bite and lasted until 



1943 when Raymond Hays, an "ardent follower of 
Hensley," came into Grasshopper Valley and ef- 
fected a revival (Tennessee Snake Handlers 2-3). 
Perry Bettis listed the sequence and people as fol- 
lows: 

Old man George had some trouble over here with 
his family, had some trouble, and it died down for 
a few years, you know, I wouldn't say how many 
years, fifteen or twenty year, and then old man 
George come back in and started preaching it 
again. Raymond Hays come from Kentucky; Brother 
Hutton was from Virginia, and they all come 



52 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Lewis Ford's funeral service: Preacher William Henry playing guitar (whose father, Walter, and uncle Hobart 
Wilson died the following year of serpent bite; Hobart was bitten at Walter's funeral). Photograph 1945 by J. C. 
Collins, identification by Flora Bettis. 



down here and Brother Luther Morrow and Jim 
Posey and Mark Braddam and Walt Ford and 
Dora Young and all — they built a brush arbor up 
there at Dolly Pond and they started handlin' 
them there. My wife got bit there, and that's the 
first night I started goin' with her — she's snake 
bit — and I took her home, walked her home. We 
walked down the road and her arm all swelled up. 
It kept a-goin', and they built a church house 
there. 

The congregation is reported as being founded, 
assisted hy George Hensley, in June 1945 ("Dem- 
onstration of Faith" 1). They named themselves 



"The Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs Fol- 
lowing." They remained nondenominational. 

Raymond Hays, "Buck" as he was called, and 
George may have even come from Kentucky to- 
gether. According to Collins it was Hays who led 
Tom Harden, later the pastor of the Dolley Pond 
church, into serpent handling, although Tom's fa- 
ther Enoch had been among the first to participate 
in serpent handling when it was originally intro- 
duced by Hensley (Tennessee Snake Handlers 5-6). 

According to reports of wondrous acts performed 
by Buck Hays, it is no surprise that he was an ef- 



George Hensley • 53 




Inez Riggs Hutcheson 
(center), George 
Hensley' s third wife, 
after a religious service 
with Reece Ramsey (left 
front) and others. A 
copperhead drapes 
around Charley Fritts's 
neck. Photograph 1947 
courtesy of Inez's son 
Bill Hutcheson. 



fectual revivalist. Perry Bettis told of an amazing 
instance of handling fire: 

I seen Buck Hays go up — they had a heater up 
there, and they fired it with (it was one of these 
old potbellied stoves, cast iron) and I seen him go 
up to that thing and it fired with coke — they 
didn't fire it with coal, they fired that thing with 
coke. And he walked up to that heater and he 
opened that door and it was sheer red; and the 
heater outside was red, blood red, man. And he 
just went around that thing and hugged that thing 
and just stuck his head in there and just held it no 
telling how long, a minute or two, and come out, 
boy — and pulled his sleeves up and showed every- 
body everything was alright, didn't even scorch 
his clothes, his hair or nothin' — come out of that 
heater, rejoiced around there. And my brother 
was sittin' back there, Paul, he's a-sittin' back 
there about half shot, and he said, "Why I can do 
that" — and then walked up there, grabbed the 
stove door open, rolled that sleeve up and stuck 
that arm in there and just as soon as he could get 
it in thete and out, just "pop" (I mean he took it 



out just like lightning), and the meat just fell off, 
boys, cooked it, I mean done too. I mean it put 
him in bad case — he didn't use it for a year. 

There were many cases of "tests" by individu- 
als' bringing in tormented snakes — "pour whiskey 
and black pepper in the boxes to get them to bite" — 
and especially large or vicious serpents to chal- 
lenge the membets. But it was not uncommon for 
scoffers to become believers. Sometimes the heck- 
lers were rowdy young men out drinking. Minnie 
Parker Harden remembers the Ku Klux Klan's com- 
ing in the building one evening to control one 
such group. Julia Brumlow says the Klan took the 
young men outside, whipped them, took them back 
inside, and warned them not to disrupt the ser- 
vices. 

Hensley was active at Dolley Pond, but char- 
acteristically his ministry in the valley was not re- 
stricted to that church or to any single place. His 
son Roscoe, who in 1944 was a pastor of a church 
not far from Grasshopper Valley, heard his father 



54 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



at a "cottage meeting" (a service at someone's home) ; it 
was one of the few sermons Roscoe was to hear 
him preach. 

There were some hard feelings toward George 
when he came back to Tennessee, and there still 
are, as one would expect. For the most part, though, his 
domestic problems were seemingly dismissed by 
the community. But they are not dismissed by the 
family members, including Roscoe: 

We just all telt that he had erred. He abandoned 
the second family and was preaching during that 
time. You know how you'd feel towards a man 
who wouldn't support his family — if it is my dad. 
And he didn't support us, he didn't support his 
family. His income was very small. This type of 
ministry he was in was mostly of a summertime 
ministry. During the winter he didn't have a trade. 
He was a very poor provider, and abandoned two 
families. Why, you couldn't hardly approve of that 
type of lifestyle. They [the family] didn't feel too 
good about it, for sure. 

Lloyd Stokes says about his grandfather George, 
"He was about as big a hypocrite that ever lived. 
The story he circulated in Ohio was that he gave 
up his first family only when the oldest son could 
take care of them — that was Franklin who was twelve 
years old at the time!" Actually Franklin was only 
nine at the time George left. 

Nevertheless, George continued evangelizing. 
In September 1945 Lewis Ford, a member of the 
Dolley Pond church, was fatally bitten by a rattle- 
snake. The fatality, however, did not dampen the 
serpent-handling activities; perhaps it even increased 
them. Ford's funeral service included the taking up 
of serpents, as has become something of a tradi- 
tion in funerals of sign followers. Serpents were 
placed in the casket during the service, but Minnie 



Parker Harden, who was there, says they were not 
buried with the corpse. 

Hensley's zeal was certainly not diminished by 
Ford's death. In fact, not long afterward, he and Tom 
Harden were arrested for disorderly conduct while 
handling serpents one Sunday afternoon in Chat- 
tanooga. They were conducting a faith-healing ser- 
vice in the front of the house of a member of the 
M. A. Tomlinson Church of God who had invited 
them to come preach. Hensley was reported at the 
time to be of Brightsville, Tennessee (Corliss, "2 
'Faith-Healing' Ministers" 1). Both Hensley and 
Harden refused on principle to pay their fifty-dol- 
lar fines and were sent to the workhouse. Accord- 
ing to one report, the case was appealed by friends 
who were concerned about George's physical con- 
dition (Collins, Tennessee Snake Handlers 23). The 
charges were dismissed. 

George continued evangelizing. In 1946 he was 
preaching at Daisy, Tennessee, in a brush arbor, 
very likely the same one in which Ford was bitten. 
There he met Inez Riggs Hutcheson, a woman 
with ten children who had recently moved off the 
farm where she and her husband had lived before 
his death. As a result of George's preaching, Inez 
accepted both serpent handling as Bible teaching 
and George's proposal of marriage. She planned to 
assist him in his ministry, traveling with him and 
reading the Bible for him as he preached. They 
moved back to the farm in nearby Soddy with the 
four of her children who were still at home. Faith, 
George's oldest daughter by his second wife, was 
also to stay several weeks with him and this third 
wife until she returned home to the daughter of his 
first wife! 

Inez's son Bill says his mother regretted the 
marriage almost from the start. He describes his 



George Hensley • 55 







Building formerly of the Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs Following, presently of the Birchwood Church of 
God of Prophecy. Photograph 1989 by the author. 



mother as a very religious person who thought that 
George was a godly man whom she could com- 
pletely accept, both for what he said and what he 
appeared to be. In less than six months George and 
Inez were separated. According to Bill, George was 
not the kind of person Inez thought he was, not 
even the sort of man who should he preaching and 
handling serpents at all: "Not a mean man or any- 
thing like that, but a sort of a . . . weirdo." 

George did not stop preaching, but apparently 
he was not at the Dolley Pond Church of God 
with Signs Following in August 1947 when Tom 
Harden and eleven others were arrested for violat- 



ing the newly enacted Tennessee code against ser- 
pent handling. But two months after the Dolley 
Pond arrest and before the trial was held, George 
himself was arrested again in Chattanooga for han- 
dling serpents. The tent services he had been tak- 
ing part in had been conducted for thirty days by the 
Undivided Church of God ("Man Bitten Here" 1). 
Several weeks later he was reported to be a defense 
witness for the Dolley Pond group and was photo- 
graphed with Tom Harden and others at the trial 
("Snake Handlers of Georgia, Kentucky" 1; Smartt 
1). In December he was reported as the assistant 
pastor of the New South Chattanooga Church of 



56 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



God ("Snake Cult Opens Church" 3). Sometime 
after this he is recounted as preaching in a tent 
meeting in East Chattanooga where serpents were 
handled and where he related a personal incident 
of being crushed in a Kentucky coal mine. He told 
how he had lain a year in bed paralyzed before be- 
ing restored by prayer (Robertson 169-71 ). 

Probably in 1951 in Chattanooga he met and 
later married Sally Moore Norman. She was nick- 
named "Peg" because of a leg amputation from a 
childhood accident. It was the fourth marriage for 
both. She was in her sixties, he in his seventies. 
After George's death, she was to marry twice again. 

From the time George returned to the South- 
ern Appalachians he did not stop his evangelistic 
excursions. Apparently his lifestyle never changed. 
Irene had called him a "rolling stone," and George 
thought of himself as an Apostle Paul planting the 
seed, which the Apollos would water. Winifred, 
his grandson (and son-in-law by marriage), calls 
him a missionary: "I never did know of him stay- 
ing at one church. He weren't no one-church 
stayer. You'd call him, I guess, a missionary; he 
went from places to places." His travels took him 
to Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, North 
Carolina, West Virginia, Georgia, and Florida; but 
during the last twenty-five years of his life Ken- 
tucky was his hub. Winifred says: 

Seemed like Kentucky was his mam place. Then 
he'd spring out and leave, and then come down 
through Tennessee and wind up down in South 
Georgia; so he would spend a few months at each 
place and by the time he wound back up, you 
know, maybe he was back in Kentucky. When he 
came back, why, he'd just hug you and talk to you, 
and he was really good to us and he'd stay with us 
for a while, then leave and go somewhere. You 



may not see him for a year. You didn't know. We 
lived up there off of Birchwood Road and he'd 
come, a-leading in one day — had him a goat. 
That's all he brunt in with him. He'd been gone 
for a long time. "Well, I'm gonna stay awhile with 
you'ns." "Well, you're welcome." 

Winifred's wife, Helen (George's step-daughter by 
marriage to Sally), adds: "He ttaveled a whole lot. 
My mom went with him, and we weren't around 
them very much, except when they came back 
here. He just traveled everwhere, all through 
Georgia and Kentucky and Tennessee, preaching." 
His final move was to Albany, Georgia, with Sally, 
holding meetings there and in Florida. 

George was not materialistic, or at least he did 
not have much invested in material things. Winifted 
relates: 

He'd come with a pair of pants and a long sleeve 
shirt and preach his message and that was it. He 
just weren't no real fancy goer and you never 
heard him talk about money. I mean if they made 
him up a little that was just, "Thank the Lord for 
that." He never did complain about money. I 
never knowed him owning a house, no car. He 
was just a loner I'd call him, traveled just here you 
know, and go up there in Kentucky and they a- 
having a revival, getting a meeting a-going so and 
so. "Well, I'll head down there," and he might get 
somebody to drive; and "Let's go visit them," and 
that would be a way for him to get there. Then 
when he'd go, he'd hunt somebody it he wanted to 
stay — nearly any church members, "Yeah, come 
on in — I mean you can live here with us" and he'd 
stay two or three weeks. When he was off and 
come back to Dolly Pond, my mom — I believe, 
I'm not for sure — my mom [Rosa] was the only 
one who would take him in. I don't know for sure, 
but he never did try none of the rest of them. I 
mean it was always come to our house. It he was 



George Hensley • 57 




Site of George Hensley' s last sermon 
and fatal serpent bite, 24 July 1955, in 
Calhoun County, Florida. Photograph 
courtesy of J. R. Hensley. 



here, he'd never would go around none of the rest 
of 'em. And he'd wind up staying with us a few 
weeks, and then you may not see him no more for 
a few years. 

After he moved to Georgia, the family did not 
see much of him, but it was in Florida near Altha 
that George Went Hensley was to end his minis- 
try. There on 24 July 1955 in an abandoned black- 
smith shop — the tin roof and board siding in need 
of repair, a board nailed across the top of a stake 
driven into the dirt floor as a pulpit — George was 
fatally bitten. His son says the snake was from a 
zoo. A local newspaper account of George's death 
was that he had been holding services for over three 
weeks without the use of serpents until the one 
that bit him was brought in ("Rattlesnake Bite 
Kills" 1). 

Newspaper reporter Don Kimsey gives a first- 
hand account of that hot Sunday-afternoon ser- 
vice in the Florida panhandle twenty-five miles 
from the Georgia-Alabama line. Several dozen men, 
women, and children were present. Hensley was 
speaking in tongues, preaching, and calling out 



'"Faith . . . faith ... it can cure anything!'" A five- 
gallon lard can held a five-foot tattlesnake, which 
Hensley drew forth and wrapped around his neck 
and arms as he circled before the small assembly. 
After some ten minutes, just as Hensley was plac- 
ing it back in the can, the large rattler sank its 
fangs deep into the preacher's right wrist. With his 
left hand he pulled the serpent loose and returned 
it to the can. In a few minutes Hensley became sick 
but refused medical aid. Kimsey says, "He fought off 
death for several hours, in great agony and constantly 
belching blood. . . . Just before he writhed, twisted 
and gasped his last breath, Hensley groaned to me: 
'The snake would not have struck — if fear had not 
come over someone here.'" Some of those present 
said he had been bitten 446 times; another report said 
401. The Calhoun County sheriff recorded the death 
as suicide. Three carloads of George's families drove 
all night from Tennessee to attend the funeral and 
then all night back to return for work. Grandson 
Lloyd Stokes said that a country band played at 
the funeral. 

George had had close encounters with death 



58 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Family members of George Hensley who made the long drive to Florida for Hensley' s funeral in July 1955. 
Photograph courtesy of La Creta Simmons. 



by serpent bite before. Loyal remembers his father 
almost dying on several occasions and the deacons 
coming in and praying for him as he lay "rigid as a 
steel rod, vibrating with the death rattle in his 
throat." Jean remembers once in Ooltewah when 
she was about twelve years old that her father was 
serpent bit. He was delirious, calling out her name, 
and she was taken to him. "His head was black and 
as big as a foot basin." But those times he survived. 
Most general reports about George himself are 
that he was a good, gentle, sincere man. Accord- 
ing to his niece Grace Cook, he had a "nice per- 
sonality, very humble." Pastor Henry Swiney from 



Sneedville, Tennessee, says: "There weren't too 
many handling them the first time he come through 
here. Everybody that knowed anything about him in 
this part of the country thought pretty well of him, 
spoke pretty well of him." Minnie Harden of Dolley 
Pond days recalls: "He was a quiet man." Harvey 
Grant, who used to preach with him in street ser- 
vices, states: "Oh, you couldn't help but love Uncle 
George. He was really honest. He was humble." Bar- 
bara Elkins, matriarch of the Church of the Lord 
Jesus, Jolo, West Virginia, who took her first ser- 
pent from his hands, recalls: "He was a good, sound 
believer; he was a good man." Perry Bettis, native 



George Hensley • 59 



of his homeground, believes: "Old man George, he 
was a fine old man now, he was a good old man; 
there ain't no question about it." 

His grandson Winifred says, "He was always 
just a church-go-to-preach, go-home-with-some- 
body and stuff like that. I never did see nothing 
wrong out of him; he wouldn't even drink a Co'- 
Cola. I mean he was that strict. I don't think he'd 
even drink coffee. He was quiet. He'd sit down 
with a bunch of kids, you know, and maybe two or 
three get around and he'd rather play with the kids 
than associate with grown people." Winifred's wife 
adds: "Everywhere he went, children would come 
around him, you know — laugh and cut-up with 
'em, sit down on the ground and just play with 
'em." Winifred also recalls: "Yeah, he was a little, 
small guy. He'd just pile up in the grass and kids 
pile around him, even grown folks get out there. 
He was a lot of cut-up to him and happy all the 
time. There will never be another one like him, I 
don't believe." 

George's daughter Jean also says he was a jolly 
person, always cutting up, and that he liked chil- 
dren — "he just didn't like supporting them." "He 
wouldn't hurt nobody, wouldn't cause nobody no 
trouble," says Winifred. "You never heard him ar- 
gue; you never heard him say nothing about no- 
body. If he come and live with us for a few months 
you never heard a cross word out of him, and he 
was nice to everybody. He was just a happy guy. I 
guess it was the way he lived. To me, if you really 
wanted to be a Christian, he had the full works, 
you know — just by his actions and the way he'd 
go around and the way he treated people, 'cause 
nearly anybody would take him in, just tickled to 
death just to have him around. What few years we 



remember him and know him, he was just, you 
know, a great guy to us." One time when Jean was 
about fifteen years old, she met her father on the 
street, and he didn't even know her, but still she 
acknowledges that George had a "charming per- 
sonality — everybody loved that man." 

Preaching, Hensley was anything but quiet; he 
displayed an altogether different personality. One 
newspaper reporter was obviously taken back: 
"Brother Hensley was waving his arms. He went 
up and down the aisles in an Indian dance with 
head bent low and knees moving high. The per- 
spiration was pouring off his face" ("Pastor Here 
Whirls Snake" 12). Winifred was certainly impressed 
with his grandfather's preaching: 

But the only time he'd really do talking was when 
he got up to preach, and he would give you twenty- 
five or thirty minutes of I guess one of the best 
messages you could ask for in preaching. He was 
one ot them kind of preachers that when he 
preached, he put everything that he had in it. I've 
seen him in them meetings preach and be wring- 
ing wet with sweat and just keep going. Well, he'd 
preach awhile — he had a funny doin' — he'd preach 
to 'em and then with his hand behind his ear: 
"Huh, can ye hear me?" Then he'd go back and 
he'd preach awhile again — he'd do the same thing. 
He'd run maybe halfway: "Huh, did ya hear me?" 
He would get someone to read the verses from the 
Bible for him and he'd preach on them; he could 
just preach in it just anywheres he wanted to. 

According to Winifred, George's preaching did 
not dwell on the handling of serpents: "You never 
did hear him really get on that one verse that they 
believed in. You know, I don't remember ever hear- 
ing him preach on it. But that was just something 
that was in the Bible that he believed in. He'd 



60 • Serpent-Harullmg Believers 



preach from just anywheres, just come out and you'd 
get him started and it just seemed like he could 
memorize it." Other members of his families, how- 
ever, say he always preached on the handling of 
serpents. He certainly preached it at Dolley Pond, 
according to Minnie Parker Harden. Whichever 
opinion is accurate, most agree he was an effective 
preacher. Harvey Grant, for one, says: "He preached 
under the anointing. You could sit up there and 
listen at him two hours and it'd seem like he hadn't 
been preachin' no time." Winifred agrees: "He was 
a really good preacher to sit down and just listen at 
you know. And if they get happy, look out, 'cause 
they'd have snakes going everywheres and get 
a-hold of hot lamp globes. I mean, you know, it didn't 
blister them or nothing. They'd get them old torches 
and hold them up. He'd hold it right up in their 
face. And they'd be just as black as they could be 
when church was over, that old soot coming off 
that old kerosene." 

It is interesting that, despite the pervasive in- 
fluence Hensley had in the spread of serpent han- 
dling throughout the southern states, none of his 
children followed his example in taking up ser- 
pents, not even the son who became a minister. 
The irony does not escape the family: "They never 



did take up no snake-handling," says Winifred, 
"never would go to their church, never would go 
around together. As far as I know they never was 
none of the family or members took it up with 
him. I know my mother didn't, and, well, I know 
all the rest of 'em — none of 'em took it up." 

When all is said and done, George Hensley 
may not have been significantly different — in his 
background, character, and preaching — from many 
rural evangelists of his time. What seems to be the 
most important difference is that he accepted less 
than most the moral responsibilities of family and 
chose instead to devote more of his life in going 
forth for half a century to preach and manifest a sen- 
sational belief. That belief brought Hensley a deluge 
of crowds, among whom were many who came to 
follow in his footsteps, preaching the signs. But the 
tide ebbed. His personal story is composed of antith- 
eses, and the motivations of his actions are ulti- 
mately unclear. The subtle knot of the spiritual and 
physical in the life of George Hensley is Gordian. 
But, whatever else might be said about him and 
whatever personal demons he may have had, he 
persevered in his religious practice throughout a long 
life until he died a death that many serpent han- 
dlers would prefer. 



4 



And 

these 

signs 

shall 

follow 



Reports 

from the 

Battlefield 



Weave a circle round him thrice, 
And close your eyes with holy dread, 
For he on honeydew hath fed, 
And drunk the milk of Paradise. 

— Coleridge, "Kubla Khan" 



In 1923 a division within the Church of God 
formed two groups, one retaining the name 
"Church of God" and the other being called finally 
the "Church of God of Prophecy." In the eight 
years prior to this split, editorials and reports from 
the field, or "battlefield" as it is often referred to in 
the official church paper, show that serpent han- 
dling was being widely conducted by Church of 
God members. Serpent-handling believers — or 
"saints," as they often referred to themselves in 
biblical terminology — were never confined to the 
ranks of the Church of God, even though the gen- 
eral overseer of that organization was of the opin- 
ion that they were. Independents such as James 
Miller in Alabama took up serpents (Vance 36). 
George Hensley himself, a member of the Church 
of God for some ten years, handled serpents as an 
independent the greater part of his ministry. 

Although serpent handling as a religious prac- 
tice was not confined to churches formally associ- 
ated with the Church of God, reports appearing in 
the church's paper, the Evening Light and Church 
of God Evangel, provide valuable insights into the 
early days of the practice. Reports came not only 
from the southern states of Tennessee, Kentucky, 
North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, 
and Mississippi, but also from the mid- and south- 
western states of Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, and 
Texas. These accounts do not simply describe the 
activity of a small group of evangelists; rather, they 



62 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Service of the Pentecostal Church of God, Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1946. Russell Lee Collection, National 
Archives 245-MS-2621L, courtesy of Pat Arnow. 



relate the experiences of numerous folks in taber- 
nacles, brush arbors, homes, fields, and roads — de- 
scriptions of people being swept away by the dem- 
onstrations of the sign followers. 

The names of more than fifty people are asso- 
ciated with the instances described in this period, and 
only a few are ever repeated. Even George Hensley's 
name appears only five times in conjunction with 
the mention of serpents, all within the space of 
approximately one year. Two of these are in con- 



nection with the Cleveland revival in September 
1914, and another is of a meeting the following 
month in Ooltewah held with M. S. Haynes in 
which two rattlesnakes were taken up. Almost a 
year later Pastor N. P. Mulkey refers to Hensley in 
an announcement: "We have closed the meeting 
out on the mountain. . . . God gave power to handle 
the rattlesnake. We are now holding a meeting in 
Soddy. . . . George Hensley, in charge." Then two 
months later, a report from nearby Dividing Ridge 



Reports from the Battlefield • 63 



appears: "Brothers Hensley and Mulkey closed a 
meeting here the last of September. . . . After Sun- 
day School was over the poison rattler was brought 
in." Over two years after this notice, William 
Headrick writes from the same area, Birchwood, 
but with no mention of serpents: "I thank God for 
ever sending Brother George Hensley to this place 
to preach holiness. He gave us the light on the 
Church of God." 

The reports indicate that the serpents were 
generally brought in by outsiders. On some occa- 
sions this occurred as a means of ridicule: "They 
first brought us a little garter snake, but we would 
not fool with it." For the scorners, however, the 
worm would generally turn: 

people were convinced that we preached and 
practiced the truth. . . . later they brought in a 
Copper head, and the Lord gave power to handle 
it and the "garter snake crowd" stood back. ... So 
last Sunday as some one was coming to the meet- 
ing they found a big rattle snake lying across the 
road and they brought it to the tent and God gave 
power to nearly every saint there to handle it. 

A similar situation occurred in an adjoining state: 

On Wednesday night they brought us a little 
garter snake. We refused to have anything to do 
with it. The next night they brought us a rattle 
snake pilot. We refused to handle him because of 
the unsatety of the congregation, but we told the 
folks to wait until Sunday. . . . After the preaching 
we had prayer and the power fell. God gave power 
to handle the poison serpent. Praise the Lord! 
There were only four of us saints and all handled 
the serpent successfully. 

There were other times in which the serpent was 
not immediately handled when brought in. In one 
case, "They brought the old rattle-snake in, but 
the devil howled so they put it out of the house 



and said not to bother it. But God had all power 
and He gave me power to go down and take it out 
of the box before I left the yard." On one occasion 
the handling apparently was refused altogether: "It 
had been rumored that a snake was going to be 
btought there [Bunker Hill, Tenn.] for the saints 
to handle. Jesus said, (Matt. 12:39) 'An evil and 
adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and no 
sign shall be given 6kc.'" At another time the ser- 
pent was retained for future use: "The snake was 
kept for a week and at intervals some of the breth- 
ren would go and take it out and handle it." 

As would be expected, the number of those 
who handled the serpents varies according to the 
place, the circumstances, and the size of the group 
of believers, among other factors; but the handlers 
included all ages and both sexes. According to one 
account, 

She [Sister Mefford] went down in prayer and the 
power of the Lord fell on her and she picked the 
snake up in the name of the Lord and handled it 
in all shapes that she could think of and then 
started home with it in her hands. She put the 
serpent down three times and took it up again and 
during the time she was handling this poison 
venomous serpent she traveled three-quarters of a 
mile. Her mother was all the time watching for a 
chance to amputate the snake's head, and the 
fourth time she laid it down her mother struck it 
with an ax. 

One participant is quoted as saying, "I am a boy of 
sixteen years and have had the Holy Ghost one 
week. ... I have handled hot lamp chimneys un- 
der the mighty power of God and to-day while I 
was in the field, I was bitten by a serpent under 
the power and it did not hurt me. I can hardly tell 
whete it bit me." Sometimes the number of han- 
dlers is only "several"; other times it is greater: "five 








Mis. Cecil Denkins putting aside guitar to handle a serpent at services of the Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs 
Following. Photograph 1947 by J . C. Collins, identification by Flora Bettis. 



of his little hand," "some ten or more," "about 
twenty-five," "about forty" — and in one naively 
open statement: "All the saints present handled it 
but three or four. My two babies, one eight years 
(.ild handled it." 

In most cases the handling of serpents is men- 
tioned in conjunction with other signs, sometimes 
briefly: "The signs for true believers followed. Sev- 
eral hot lamp chimneys, fire and a large snake were 
handled successfully." Sometimes, with greater de- 
tail: "The Word was given out with love and power 
and if had its effect. The saints were greatly edi- 
fied and God showed His mighty power of heal- 
ing. We prayed for a baby with the small-pox and 
God immediately healed the child. The saints 
danced, talked in tongues, handled a hot lamp chim- 
ney and some live coals. Serpents were also handled 



without injury." Other times, the description of 
the signs is given at great length: 

We are praising God because He has linked 
together a little flock of believers according to 
Mark 16:17.... 

In regard to taking up serpents. One night 
there was a big black diamond rattler, five feet 
long, brought in during the services and God gave 
us power to handle it. Praise His dear name. The 
Lord surely did bless during the time. It was really 
a foretaste of heaven. The saints remarked about 
the sweet spirit. 

The next sign was laying hands on the sick. 
A sinner girl was pronounced by the doctor to 
have tuberculosis of the bone and said she would 
not walk for eighteen months or two years. The 
mother called us to pray for her girl and praise His 
name, what do you think happened.' Just what 




Cecil Denkins with serpent around his neck. Denkins was arrested for handling serpents at Dolley Pond soon after 
this photograph was taken in August 1947, then later with George Hensley and Reece Ramsey the following October 
in Chattanooga. Photograph by J. C. Collins, identification by Flora Bettis. 



James 5:15 said would happen, 'And the prayer of 
faith shall save the sick. . . .' 

Another sign was given unto the people just 
like what happened on the day of Pentecost Acts 
2:3. 'And there appeared unto them cloven tongues 
like as of fire, and it sat upon each ot them.' After 
meeting [sic] sinners came to us and said they saw 
a streak of fire start from L. G. Rouse's head on 
around mine and my husband's heads and back to 
Brother Rouse and as the fire reached each one 
the mighty sweet power of God quickened our 
mortal bodies and sinners were made to believe. 
Praise God. 

Messages in tongues were given out and inter- 
preted and many other signs were wrought and, 
praise the Lord, when the signs were seen to be 
following us, people began to believe. . . . 



In the context of some of the more unusual re- 
ports of signs, the serpent handling seems rather 
ordinary: 

A rattle snake was handled and also fire. The 
organ was played by the power of the Holy Ghost 
while our hands were held up in praises. 

A lady about sixty-nine years old was in- 
stantly healed. She had not walked a step in eight 
years without crutches. A man was instantly healed 
of lung trouble and another healed of deafness and 
throat trouble, also many other healings. 

Fire was seen by several more than once and 
one sister saw a crown of gold. 

The signs were set forth primarily as "confirm- 
ing" the word, the believers, the power of God, and 
the Church of God as well: "The signs are truly fol- 
lowing the Church of God." Other expressions are 






til* n7!> 






v 



! 



•» 






I 






5 i $ 




M;\j. Parker with a rattlesnake around her neck like a scaif. Maggie Parker was one of the twelve arrested at the 
church soon after this photograph was taken in 1947. Photograph by J. C. Collins, identification by Flora Bettis. 



used to indicate different, though related, reasons 
for taking up the serpents. Obedience, for ex- 
ample, is implied: "A large rattler was taken up in 
accordiance [sic] with the word." For some it is a 
test, apparently by Satan: "She won the victory 
out here by being tempted by a copperhead snake"; 
"We have been tried by two copperheads." In one 
instance it is specifically answering a challenge by 
Satan: "Nearly all the saints handled him [a rattle- 
snake]. He was then put away and Satan suggested 
that we were afraid to handle the copper head. 
The copper head snake was then set out and again 
we prayed and the Lord gave power to handle him." 
For others the emphasis on serpent handling is one 
of privilege and honor: "He has honored us by let- 
ting us take up live coals of fire and serpents"; "most 
of the saints enjoyed the privilege and blessing of 



taking it [a copperhead] up in the name of Jesus." 
Another statement suggests that the experience 
confirmed God's honor, that He was true to what 
He said, "God wonderfully honored His Word." 

For the most part the reports proclaim positive 
effects, both for the handler and his mission: "It 
was wonderful, and some were convinced"; "many 
were made to believe in the true God"; "people 
came humbling themselves crying to God." No 
doubt in many cases the serpent handling was the 
elixir that transmuted a meeting into a vital expe- 
rience. In Jasper, Tennessee, "It seemed that noth- 
ing was being done until last night when some boys 
brought in two nice serpents"; in Bude, Mississippi, 
"Many people [who] witnessed the scene with great 
excitement and stony hearts were broken to pieces 
and many dry eyes overflowed with tears while God 




Reece Ramsey, who died seven years after this photograph was taken from a serpent bite during a brush arbor 
meeting in Georgia. Photograph 1947 by J. C. Collins, identification by Flora Bettis. 



was confirming His Word. People who were holi- 
ness fighters [i.e., those opposing them] went [a]way 
from the meeting wanting the blessing." 

The language referring to serpents in these re- 
ports is quite telling. Sometimes the words are ap- 
preciative: "a nice little copper head snake"; some- 
times familiar: "old copperhead," "old ratler" [sic]; 
at other times the serpent is personified as "the big 
fellow" or "the old fellow." There is a certain lyric 
quality to be found in such expressions as "the old 
rattler sang in our hands and did not strike the first 
time"; sometimes a dramatic effect is achieved: "I 
set the box on the stand and was trying to get the 
lid off when the power struck brother Cagle and 
the lid flew off and out came the rattlesnake, sing- 
ing and bitting [sic]." At times, the descriptions are 
metaphorical: "it was harmless as a bird"; some- 



times innocently so: "I wish you could have seen 
Jessie fold those snakes in her arms and pet them 
as if they were kittens." 

The serpents at times were less like kittens and 
more like cockatrices, yet the reports seem forth- 
right about that, too. Some of the bites are de- 
scribed as having no visible consequences. Others 
are accepted as purposefully painful. But the emo- 
tional responses to the bites, however, are basically 
the same: "Glory to God." There are frequent state- 
ments such as "Some were bitten but it did not 
hurt them" and "The serpent bit one of the saints 
but the place did not even swell." When the wife 
of then-state overseer of Tennessee, George T. 
Brouayer, was bitten, the description is "as it was 
with Paul, she felt no harm." Two years later, when 
Brouayer was in Texas, he wrote: "The serpent's 




The original caption for this photograph pejoratively states: "This coal camp offers none of the modern types of 
amusement and many of the people attend the services of this church more for the mass excitement and emotialism 
[sic] than because of belief in the tenets of this church." Russell Lee Collection. National Archives 245-MS-2635L, 
courtesy of Pat Arnow. 



tang pierced the hand of one of our girls, and while 
some concluded she would suffer and die, the Lord 
beautifully healed." Occasionally the bites are 
graphically set forth: 

He [a rattlesnake] bit brother Cagle once and he 
gave him to me and he bit me four times and 
brought blood each time, and hung his two fangs 
in my arm so deep he could not get them out and 
hung there until brother Ed Cavitt pulled him 
loose. The blood ran down on my cuff but no 
harm was done. It did not make me a bit sick. I 
wiped my hand with my handkerchief and then 
wiped my face and mouth not realizing what I was 
doing and got poison in my mouth and swallowed 



it. It sure tasted bad but I felt no hurt. My hand 
swelled just enough to let the people see that the 
poison was there. Glory to God, it gave me more 
faith. 

In another incident a man was bitten three 
times and one of the rattlesnake's teeth was bro- 
ken off in his arm. The bite made the man sick, 
and he vomited, hut the swelling was accepted as 
having a purpose: "His hand just swelled enough 
that it [the tooth] could be discovered[.] I am greatly 
encouraged." One explanation offered for a ser- 
pent bite is surprisingly naive: "One night a cop- 
perhead snake was brought in and handled by 



Reports from the Battlefield • 69 



about seven of the saints. It placed its fangs into 
the hand of one of the brethren just to show that 
he was fighting stock." 

Serpent handlers received criticism early from 
those within and outside their fellowship. A warn- 
ing comes by J. B. Ellis in the Evangel of 9 May 
1914, only a few months after the first mention of 
the practice in the paper. Ellis does not disbelieve 
the miraculous nature of handling serpents and 
fire, but he firmly states: '"All do not work miracles.'" 
He says that there are limits to be observed by the 
saints and that only the mercy of God has "kept 
some of them out of the grave." He continues: "I 
have seen some with swollen limbs. Others have 
taken up a great number of snakes and been bitten 
over a hundred times by all sorts of serpents and 
felt no harm. These, no doubt, have the gift of 
miracles, and could as easily command the lame 
to walk, the blind to see, and the deaf to hear if 
they would only use their gifts to profit withal." 
The implication of the latter part of this statement 
is that the gift is misappropriated. In the final state- 
ment of his article is another implied criticism. 
Some of the saints who handle serpents were not 
apparently demonstrating Christian love: "Let us 
get the gifts and use them as God directs and be 
sure we are in the more excellent way; for if we 
had all gift[s] and not charity we would amount to 
nothing." 

The criticism that the power of God was be- 
ing misappropriated is addressed again in an article 
five years later in May 1919 by M. S. Lemons, who 
warns the handler: "I tell you God will let them 
take your life unless He associates His power with 
you to prevent the harm." Lemons goes on to ne- 
gate the argument that some were using the power 
to handle serpents that should be used for "heal- 



ing the sick and raising the dead." He explains that 
it is God's power, not man's; thus it is God who 
determines its use: 

There seems to be a mistaken idea in the mind of 
some people in that they think God leases His 
power out to some folks and they use it for illegal 
purposes. ... It is God that takes the hand of His 
little ones and wraps them in His own hand of 
power that can handle the poisonous reptile or 
that takes up the living coals of fire. It is not in 
man to do that. . . . No living man can get God to 
go into a shoddy business like that. . . . Some 
would accuse God ot making a mistake (?) His signs 
do not follow unbelievers. No man can conal the 
power of God and use it for an illicit purpose. 

Lemons also addresses another accusation, that the 
power is from the Devil and not from God: "It is 
very easy to conclude that they desire to leave the 
insinuation that we have the devil in the lead, and 
are coworkers with the same. We will let the Lord 
be judge. 'The fire shall try every man's work of 
what sort it is.'" 

The first reference to serpent handling in the 
Evangel seems to be on 24 January 1914, apparently 
by the editor and General Overseer A. J. Tomlinson. 
It is included in a list of marvelous demonstrations 
of God's power being manifested by the Church of 
God. Tomlinson continued over the years to com- 
ment on serpent handling in the Evangel, some- 
times devoting lengthy articles to the subject. The 
first long description, appearing on 19 September 
1914, gives a second-hand report of the Cleveland 
meeting conducted during the previous month by 
George Hensley. The article, "Sensational Dem- 
onstrations," is headed with "Signs following be- 
lievers, and miracles done in the name of Jesus are 
Scriptural and should be encouraged as a means of 
preaching the Gospel. Rom. 15:18, 19." Tomlinson 



70 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



recounts that some instruction about serpent han- 
dling was given during the meeting and that George 
Hensley had prophesied "that some body was going 
to bring them a snake to take up." On Friday night a 
rattlesnake pilot was brought in, but "None of the 
saints had made any plans or said what they would 
do about the matter and even went to the meeting 
with little or no expectation of such a thing." The 
serpent was handled, and some were bitten — but 
with no harm. Then on Sunday night, according to 
the report, the sensation being so great and the 
outsiders wanting to test the matter further, a cop- 
perhead was brought in — with the same result. On 
the following Thursday a poisonous adder and a 
rattler were brought in, "but as soon as they were 
touched by those under the power they wilted and 
never offered to bite any one." 

Tomlinson says he was told that the effect of 
the serpent handling at the meeting was commend- 
able and that many became believers. He adds, how- 
ever, a qualification: "Can't tell what the final out- 
come will be, but believe it will result in much 
good for His glory and the salvation of souls, as all 
that has been done so far as I know was on Scrip- 
tural lines." In closing he warns: "Beware of pre- 
sumption. Never try to handle a serpent yourself. 
Be sure it is the power of God that impels you and 
not a mere impulse of your own. Take it because 
the power makes you do it and no other way, then 
there is no danger." He tells his readers that it is a 
time when one may expect many miracles, but he 
obviously had some reservations: "It is also a time 
for Satan to be on the scene and try to press people 
into extremes and presumptious [sic] undertakings, 
which, if done, will bring reproach on the worthy 
cause we love so well." 

The month following this article, Tomlinson 



went to a meeting in Ooltewah — conducted by 
George Hensley, Amanda Hensley, M. S. Haynes, 
and others — where serpents were handled. His com- 
ments are entirely complimentary except for those 
regarding the press: "We found the attendance large, 
and the best of attention and order. In spite of the 
ridiculous falsehoods published through local pa- 
pers, people are seeing the truth. Praise God." The 
next month, as part of his report on the General 
Assembly of the Church of God, he exuberantly 
proclaims without qualification: "Our people are 
taking up serpents and literally handling fire with 
no harm, besides speaking in tongues, casting out 
devils, healing the sick and raising those to life 
who are apparent-[ly] dead." Serpent handling heads 
the list of those "greater things" to which he says 
"We have come." Previously to the assembly itself 
he had said: "Wild poison serpents have been taken 
up and handled and fondled over almost like ba- 
bies with no harm to the saints" (Book of Minutes 
166; cf. 183,268). 

On 2 1 November he writes that serpent han- 
dling — a practice that would have been considered 
fanatical a few years earlier — has become not sim- 
ply one of the signs following believers but one that 
was expected to follow believers. At the beginning 
of 1915, he writes: "The past year has been one of 
progress which has led us into many miraculous 
things. Quite a number have been able under the 
power of God to take up serpents and thus demon- 
strate the power of God to a gainsaying world." 
Again, at the beginning of 1916: "God is honor- 
ing His Church by giving the members power to 
take up serpents." During August of this same year 
he eloquently responds to a critical attack from 
outside the church: "Wild rattlers are subdued and 
tamed in a moment of time and fondled over like 



Reports from the Battlefield • 71 



harmless babies. . . . No, we do not contradict His 
statement. No, we do not disobey Him, and reject 
His counsel and statement by refusing to do just 
what he says believers will do. He says plainly that 
belivers [sic] 'shall take up serpents.'" 

Tomlinson continues his reply the following 
week. In that article he gives his perspective on 
most of the key matters relating to the practice: 
the numbers of persons involved, the duration of 
time in which the activity has prevailed, the ab- 
sence of reported deaths, the instances of bites and 
effects on those bitten, the ostensible divine pur- 
pose in the bites, the overall effect on evangelism, 
the relevancy to salvation, and the parallel with 
biblical times: 

We do not pretend to say that none have died 
that were bitten, but not one instance has come 
to our hearing of any one of our people dying as a 
result of snake-bite. I suppose hundreds have 
taken up serpents according to Mark 16-18 in the 
last two or three years, and only a very few have 
been bitten, and still fewet that have been poi- 
soned enough to swell. Some, like Paul, have 
shook them loose and felt no harm. Others have 
swelled severely and caused much pain, but almost 
as soon as unbelievers were convinced that the 
reptiles were really poison, God healed up the 
wounds. I wish to say right here that the taking up 
of serpents has been a great factor in stopping the 
mouths of gainsayers, and convincing unbelievers 
of the power of God. We do not claim this as a 
matter of salvation, but it is one of the signs that 
is being displayed to the glory of God among our 
people. ... I leave it with any honest thinker to 
say if it does not read like Bible times. One verse 
is sufficient: "God also bearing them witness, both 
with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, 
and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own 
will." Heb. 2:4. 



Tomlinson was not alone in his position re- 
garding serpent handling. He was receiving signifi- 
cant reinforcement from his brethren. He writes in 
October 1916, "Calls are coming almost constantly 
for preachers. They say, Send us a preacher that the 
signs are following his ministry. They never saw any 
one take up serpents or handle fire." 

The accusations and name-calling were increas- 
ing as well. Toward the end of the year Tomlinson 
states, "We are jeered at now for handling fire, and 
taking up serpents. They call us 'fire eaters' and 
'snake charmers,' but such work is done with the 
deepest reverence and faithfulness." After this com- 
ment he gives a philosophical rationale not made 
elsewhere, the basis of which is love, and he ex- 
presses it lyrically: 

A love for God's Word suddenly seizes the in- 
spired pilgrim. They know it is true and it shall 
not be put to shame. Then a sudden love for the 
serpent or the fire envelopes and possesses the per- 
former and this conquers the reptile and quenches 
the violence of the fire. Deep love supplies the 
soothing oil, and thus the Scriptures are proven 
true in the face of doubters and scoffers. . . . There 
is a power stronger than logic. There is a power 
stronger than argument. You might try to reason 
with the serpent, and produce your argument till 
you are gray, and every time you put your hand 
down to take him up he will bite you. . . . But take 
one of God's little ones that belongs to the Church 
of of [sic] God (for these are all the people I know 
of that do such things) and let him get enrapt 
with the mighty power of love, and the serpent 
will yield to him and seem to be happy in his 
hands. (16 Dec: 1) 

Tomlinson does not say much in the Evangel 
the following year about the practice, hut in 



72 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



November 1917 he said to the thirteenth annual 
assembly of the Church of God: 

It has been reported that a few of our ministers 
have become enthused, and probably a little over 
zealous, and on the spur of the moment declared 
that unless a person could take up a serpent or 
handle fire he did not even have salvation. Such 
wild assertions as these should be avoided. The 
Church of God stands uncompromisingly for the 
signs and miracles, and upholds the taking up of 
serpents and handling fire under the proper condi- 
tions, but does not stand for making such experi- 
ences a test of salvation. (Book of Minutes 268) 

Tomlinson devotes a lengthy editorial to the 
subject in June 1918 entitled "Signs Following Be- 
lievers." For the most part this a reply to an article 
in another religious periodical. In his defense of 
the practice he cites additional scriptural evidence 
and repeats that Jesus said that these signs would 
follow believers, adding: 

Besides this Mark says that "They went forth, and 
preached everywhere, the Lord working with 
them, and confirming the word with signs follow- 
ing." (Mark 16:20.) . . . And to help Mark about 
the matter the writer of Hebrews shows that the 
signs followed, because he says, . . . "God, also 
bearing them witness, both with signs and won- 
ders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the 
Holy Ghost, according to his own will." (Heb. 
2:3,4-) • ■ ■ Paul encourages and endorses the signs 
following believers when he says, "I have there- 
fore whereof I may glory through Jesus Christ . . . 
to make the Gentiles obedient, by word and deed, 
through mighty signs and wonders, by the power 
of the Spirit of God " (Rom. 15:17-19.) 

Two years afterward, in April 1920, he writes 
an editotial in which his position is clear from the 
title: "The Signs That Follow: Why Object to God's 



Word When It Is So Plain?" Among other points, he 
addresses the proposed spuriousness of the key text in 
the sixteenth chapter of Mark: "No, sir! those verses 
are there, and all the higher ( ?) criticism and lower 
criticism too that have been running rampant dur- 
ing the last century, have never been able to force 
Bible houses to stop printing them." He goes on to 
repeat the argument of the consistency of Mark 
16:17-18 with other scriptures from both the Old 
and the New Testament, concluding: "Remember 
these signs are to continue until the return of our 
Lord. Do not weaken because they are spoken 
against." 

Even after 1923, when the split occurred in 
the Church of God and A. J. Tomlinson was no 
longer associated with the Evangel, articles appear 
in support of the signs as mentioned in Mark 
16:17-18. S. J. Heath on 28 July 1928 strongly con- 
firms his belief in the teaching of this scripture: "I 
believe as much in this teaching as I do repen- 
tance. I believe it is the will of our Lord that we 
live so close to Him that He can bring His Word 
to pass through the very church He has purchased 
with His blood." He denies that it is a test of sal- 
vation and affirms that one would have to he filled 
with the Holy Ghost. On the other hand, he con- 
demns the actions of those who "have gone into 
rank fanaticism, and false teaching, bringing re- 
proach on the Church, and disgust to intelligent 
people over the handling of serpents." He refers to 
the biblical incident of Paul on the island of Melita 
as an example of the proper circumstances in which 
the signs are to follow believers. Then he concludes: 
"If it becomes necessary to have serpents handled 
to convince an unbeliever, He [God] can furnish 
the serpent and the man" (3). 



Reports from the Battlefield • 73 



On 3 October 1931, B. L. Hicks responds simi- 
larly in an article, "And They Shall Take Up Ser- 
pents." First he says that the serpents mentioned 
in the verse are to he interpreted literally. Further- 
more, he supports the unquestionable benefits of 
the practice: "serpents have been handled by be- 
lievers in these last days, under the power of the 
Spirit and this has been a convincing sign to un- 
believers and has been to profit withal." He also 
recognizes and condemns what he sees as atten- 
dant fanaticism: "It is also a fact that some have 
made serpent handling a hobby, gone into fanati- 
cism and brought reproach on the precious gospel 
of Christ." He states that it is no more incumbent 
to take up every serpent that one sees than to lay 
hands on and heal every sick person. He concludes 
with a warning: "Be very careful and prayerful with 
our life which is not ours but God's" ( 1 ). 

In more recent commentaries in the Evangel, 
the emphasis changes even more. The focus has 
come to be on the condemnation of fanaticism as- 
sociated with the signs and on the provisional na- 
ture of Mark 16. On 5 December 1949, R. W. Hams 
writes: "You ask, 'Don't you believe in snake-han- 
dling?' Yes, I believe God has promised divine pro- 
tection from swelling, death, harm, and injury in 
the handling of serpents, provided God causes and 
brings about the experience to one of His follow- 
ers for God's own purpose and glory; but I do not 
believe in the modern system and method of prac- 
tice" (9). George B. Horton in a June 1989 article 
devoted to the signs asserts that the entire passage 
in Mark 16 is conditional, that it "is a promise of pro- 
tection rather than a command to perform" (Cross 
20). He unreservedly adds: "Though done with ut- 



most sincerity, snake handling is the divisive prod- 
uct of error in understanding the Holy Scriptures." 
Proof positive of Horton's case is apparently in- 
tended by the reference to the life of George 
Hensley. Horton makes such statements relative to 
Hensley as: "Unlike the more than 200 previous 
snakebites, however, this one would be a final 'act 
of faith,'" "The father of the serpent handlers . . . 
was bitten by serpents many times, thus revealing 
the times that the 'faith' he spoke of failed him," 
"The final failure occurred ... in 1955," and "No 
amount of faith was to mute the agonizing power 
of its venom this time" (19-21). The irony, the 
impugning of motives, the absence of empathy im- 
plicit in these statements are in marked contrast to 
the earlier articles in the Evangel and even Horton's 
own final reference to Hensley. He quotes the old 
soldier's dying words: "I know I'm going. It is God's 
will." In seventy-five years of the Evangel, Hensley 
goes from saint to sinner. 

The Evangels reports from the field could serve 
as a textbook on serpent handling. The rationale 
for the practice is there, along with the justifica- 
tion of the practitioners, the scriptural support, the 
initial leaders, the multiple rationalizations for mis- 
haps, the practice's explosive beginning and infec- 
tious spread, the resistance from within and with- 
out, and the initial cautious acceptance followed 
in turn by welcome and — ultimately — rejection. 
These foot soldiers in the trenches of the battle- 
field reveal their exhilaration with the excitement 
and joy of the phenomenon they are experiencing. 
What is at times pathetic, outrageous, and naive 
in their actions and statements is transmuted by 
the power of their religious zeal. 



5 



And 



signs 

shall 

follow 



Serpent 

Handlers 

in 

Tennessee 

Courts 



When sign-following serpent handlers first went 
forth, they were met with both exaltation and ridi- 
cule. Then, as ministering servants of God, they 
met the angel of death. They found that even be- 
lievers sometimes die from poisonous serpents, as 
did Jim Reece in Alabama before 1920 (Vance 55) 
and Alfred Weaver in Florida in 1936. Among the 
sign followers little disruption was caused by this 
discovery. Each serpent handler had an explana- 
tion for what happens when a death occurs: all is 
within Divine Providence. But, outside the fold, 
others were outraged: "We don't like this sort of 
thing, and we'd like to stop it. . . . some of the citi- 
zens up here are going to try to get a law." And get 
laws they did. 



Legislation 

In Tennessee, legislation was passed against ser- 
pent handling in February 1947. The bill was prob- 
ably engendered by events taking place in the pre- 
vious eighteen months, including five deaths in 
East Tennessee and one in Southwest Virginia. 
The first death was that of Lewis F. Ford in Sep- 
tember 1945. Ford, a member of the Dolley Pond 
Church of God with Signs Following, was a man 
in his early thirties employed as a truck driver in a 
munitions plant near Chattanooga. His serpent- 
handling beliefs became known to his fellow work- 
ers and, consequently, to a Chattanooga newspaper, 
which ran a photo story about him through the As- 
sociated Press (Collins, Tennessee Sriake Handlers 17). 
Ford — attending a brush arbor meeting in Daisy, 
Tennessee, near the Dolly Pond area — was fatally 
bitten by a serpent. The report of his death was 
carried in the Chattanooga papers, and some twenty- 



Serpent Handlers in Tennessee Courts • 75 



five hundred attended his funeral at Dolley Pond 
(Pennington, "Ford, Rattler's Victim" 1). 

In Wise County, Virginia, Anna Kirk died on 
the same day as Ford, after being bitten at a ser- 
pent-handling service ("Tennessee Preacher, Vir- 
ginia Woman Die" 25). Soon afterward, George 
Hensley and Tom Harden also came to public no- 
tice by being arrested in Chattanooga and charged 
with disorderly conduct for handling serpents. In 
July the following year at a meeting in a home in 
Daisy only a few miles from where Ford died, Clint 
Jackson died from a rattlesnake bite. Ironically, 
Jackson, who had been injured at a plant in Chat- 
tanooga and released for medical treatment, had 
gone to the meeting for divine healing (Collins, 
Tennessee Snake Handlers 23). The next month at 
a church outside the limits of Cleveland an eigh- 
teen-year-old convert, Harry Skelton, died from a 
rattlesnake bite ("Snake Bite Is Fatal" 9). Five days 
later, Walter Henry died from handling apparently 
the very same serpent at the same site (Travis 9). 
Two days later at the funeral services, Henry's 
brother-in-law Hobart Wilson died from the bite 
of a serpent, reportedly brought in by Tom Harden 
("3rd Snake Cultist Dies" 15). Before the close of 
the next state legislature, the bill that prohibited 
serpent handling was introduced simultaneously in 
both houses and passed. The code reads: 

39-2208. Handling snakes so as to endanger 
life — Penalty. — It shall be unlawful for any person, 
or persons, to display, exhibit, handle or use any 
poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such a 
manner as to endanger the life or health of any 
person. 

Any person violating the provisions of this 
section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and pun- 
ished by a fine of not less than fifty dollars 



($50.00) nor more than one hundred and fifty 
dollars ($150), or by confinement in jail not ex- 
ceeding six (6) months, or by both such fine and 
imprisonment, in the discretion of the court. 

In spite of the legislation, serpent-handling 
services continued at Dolley Pond. Consequently, 
some five months later, in August 1947, Hamilton 
County officers arrested Tom Harden and eleven 
other members, five of whom were women, for 
handling serpents during a Saturday evening ser- 
vice. Three who had been permitted to take their 
children home that evening turned themselves in 
the following day (Collins, Tennessee Snake Han- 
dlers 32). Ten of the members, including Tom 
Harden, were convicted of violating the Tennes- 
see State Code against serpent handling. The de- 
cision was appealed to the Tennessee State Su- 
preme Court in December 1948, whereupon the 
decision of the Hamilton Criminal court was af- 
firmed. 

Other than Harden, no decision of legal action 
in Tennessee involving serpent handling was ap- 
pealed to a superior court until 1973. In Septem- 
ber of that year Pastor Liston Pack and Assistant 
Pastor Alfred Ball of the Holiness Church of God 
in Jesus Name at Carson Springs, Tennessee, were 
ordered by the Cocke County Circuit Court not 
to handle poisonous serpents. The initial petition 
filed on 14 April against them followed incidents 
at their church services during the preceding week 
in which two men died from drinking strychnine 
and another was bitten by a poisonous snake. The 
two who died were the pastor's brother, Buford 
Pack, and former pastor Jimmy Williams. The pe- 
titions against Pastors Pack and Ball were made 
not on the basis of the Tennessee statutory code 
(criminal law) but on common law (civil law). The 



76 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



George Hensley 
preaching outside the 
Hamilton County Court 
House, where fellow 
serpent handlers were 
prosecuted and finally 
convicted. Photograph 
1947 by J. C. Collins. 




original petition was to prohibit the handling of 
serpents or the taking of poisons and, upon failure 
to do so, to padlock the church as a public nui- 
sance. Two weeks after this petition was filed — fol- 
lowing the special homecoming services of the 
Carson Springs church, where followers were still 
drinking poison and handling serpents, and where 
at least one more person had been bitten — the dis- 
trict attorney for Cocke County filed a second pe- 
tition charging that the county "was in imminent 
danger and likely to 'become the snake handling 
capitol of the world'" (S v. P, 527 S.W. 2d 104). 
Pack and Ball were held in contempt, fined, and 
sentenced: Pack $150 and thirty days confinement 



and Ball $100 and twenty days. The sentences were 
suspended until the defendants handled serpents 
again in Cocke County. In August the two men 
were jailed in default of payment of the fines. The 
following month the final decree of the trial judge 
was issued enjoining them perpetually from han- 
dling serpents in Cocke County. Pack and Ball 
spent four days in jail before the fines were paid, 
and the decision of whether they would serve their 
jail sentences was deferred until appeals were con- 
cluded. The state filed first to the Court of Ap- 
peals; next, to the State Supreme Court; then the 
defendants appealed to the United States Supreme 
Court, which denied certiorari; i.e., the court did 



Serpent Handlers in Tennessee Courts • 77 







Some principal members of the Dolley Pond Church, 
left to right: Reece Ramsey; Maggie Parker; 
Tom Harden' s sister Ida; Harden' s mother, Allie; and 
Mrs. Joe Ramsey. Photograph 1947 by J. C Collins, 
identifications by Flora Bettis. 

not deem it compelling to call up the records from 
the lower courts and pass judgment on their deci- 
sions. 

The major arguments in the legal opinions set 
down by these courts may be presented as follows: 

1. The First Amendment to the Constitution 
guarantees religious freedom: "Congress shall make 
no law respecting an establishment of religion or 
prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Government, 
state or federal, may not regulate the unconditional, 
absolute right of religious belief. 

2. Religious conduct is encompassed within 
the shelter of the First Amendment since religious 



belief is an empty right unless physical expression 
of that belief is permitted. 

3. Religious conduct, unlike belief, is not 
unconditionally guaranteed; it may be prohibited 
under certain conditions in the interests of society. 

4- Restriction on religious activity must with- 
stand constitutional scrutiny: "the State's interest 
must he compelling, it must be substantial, and 
the danger must be clear and present and so grave 
as to endanger paramount public interest before the 
State can interfere" (S v. P, 527 S.W. 2d 101.) 

5. The state has a compelling interest in 
protecting human life and "in having a strong, 
healthy, robust, taxpaying citizenry" (S v. P, 527 
S.W. 2d 102). The state, therefore, is obliged to 
prohibit actions that endanger the life, safety, and 
health of its citizens — and this obligation extends 
even to the "right to protect a person from himself 
and to demand that he protect his own life" (S v. 
P, 527 S.W. 2d 113). 

6. The state's right to "having a viable citi- 
zenry" and to protecting individuals against them- 
selves is not unconditional; "the State's interest in 
the 'viability of its citizens'" is not necessarily 
sufficient "as a logic leading to unlimited paternal- 
ism" (S v. P, C of A 18). The state's right must be 
evaluated in respect to the individual's: "No gen- 
eral answer can be given to the question of the 
State's constitutional power to protect the indi- 
vidual from himself. Rather, the State's interest 
must be weighed against the individual interest in 
concrete circumstances in which the factors af- 
fecting the balance can be identified and evalu- 
ated" (S v. P, C of A 17). 

7. The methods selected to restrict a religious 
activity may not be more than are necessary, and 
"in reconciling governmental interests with reli- 
gious liberty every possible leeway must be given to 
the claims of religious faith" (S v P, C of A 13-14). 
"The scales are always weighed in favor of free exer- 
cise of religion" (S v. P, 527 S.W. 2d 101 ). 



78 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Legal procedures being taken in 1947 against members of the Dolley Pond Church after seven men and five women 
were arrested for violating the recently passed state code prohibiting handling of serpents. Photograph by J. C. 
Collins. 



The Court of Appeals, from their perspective 
on these tenets, found the injunction against Pack 
and Ball "unconstitutionally broad" (21) and modi- 
fied it to prohibit them from handling serpents "'in 
such manner as will endanger the life or health of 
persons who do not consent to exposure to such 
danger'" (21). The Tennessee State Supreme Court 
overruled that opinion: "we hold that those who 
publicly handle snakes in the presence of other 
persons and those who are present aiding and abet- 
ting are guilty of creating and maintaining a pub- 
lic nuisance" (113). 

Simply put, the State Supreme Court said that 
Pack and Ball were free to hold their religious be- 



lief in serpent handling but that their practice of 
it was a public nuisance. Further, the prohibition 
of this religious activity, they said, was not uncon- 
stitutional; it conflicted with the compelling inter- 
est of the state to ensure the life and health of 
Pack and Ball as well as those who were present 
when they handled poisonous snakes: 

Under this record, showing as it does, the han- 
dling of snakes in a crowded church sanctuary, 
with virtually no safeguards, with children roam- 
ing about unattended, with the handlers so enrap- 
tured and entranced that they are in a virtual 
state of hysteria and acting under the compulsion 
ot "anointment", we would be derelict in our duty 



Serpent Handlers in Tennessee Courts * 79 









Judge George Shepherd of Cocke County, Tennessee. 
In 1973 Judge Shepherd tried and convicted Pastor 
Liston Pack and Deacon Alfred Ball for handling 
serpents. Photograph 1983 courtesy of George 
Shepherd. 



if we did not hold that respondents and their con- 
federates have combined and conspired to commit 
a public nuisance and plan to continue to do so. 
The human misery and loss of life at their "Home- 
coming" of April 7, 1970 is proof positive. (113) 

The State Supreme Court addressed the original 
petition (not just the trial court injunction) against 
Pack and Ball and prohibited not only handling poi- 
sonous snakes but also "consuming strychnine or any 
other poisonous substances, within the confines of 
the State of Tennessee" (114). 



The Court of Appeals, on the other hand, had 
addressed principally the final injunction issued by 
the trial court, which prohibited Pack and Ball only 
from handling poisonous serpents in any church 
service in Cocke County. In their modification of 
that injunction, they noted — among other things — 
that "the right of the State to protect the snake 
handlers from themselves — is not involved in a 
public nuisance action" (17) and, furthermore, that 
"as the societal effect of one's conduct diminishes, 
so does the legitimacy of the State's interest in it" 
(18). Their reasoning from these concepts, among 
others, was "Where a 'preferred freedom' is at stake 
and the State can demonstrate no greater interest 
than the most generalized concern for robust citi- 
zens, it has failed to produce a compelling reason 
for the restriction on them. ... we are unable to 
see how the State's generalized interest in a healthy- 
citizenry can outweigh the right of persons engaged 
in the earnest exercise of their religion from con- 
trolling their own bodies, even if at some danger 
to themselves, under circumstances where those 
not sharing their beliefs are fully protected" (19-20). 
The Court of Appeals did not affirm, however, that 
individuals other than the serpent handlers had 
been fully protected. In fact they ordered that Pack 
and Ball were responsible for proving to the trial 
court "that non-consenting adults and minors will 
not be endangered" (21 ). 

The modification set forth by the Court of Ap- 
peals was deemed improper by the State Supreme 
Court because, in the words of the opinion writ- 
ten by Justice Henry, there is "no reason to restrict 
the injunction to the terms of the statute, nor is 
there any occasion for applying a 'consenting adult' 
criterion." Although the Court of Appeals did not 
base its judgment on the Tennessee statute, it did 



80 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



use the language of the statute as well as to concur 
with its conditions (i.e., the restriction upon the 
manner in which others, rather than the handler, 
are endangered). 

The objection by the Tennessee Supreme Court 
to permitting consenting adults to handle serpents 
was that "this practice is too fraught with danger 
to permit its pursuit in the frenzied atmosphere of 
an emotional church service, regardless of age or 
consent" (114). The implication of this statement 
is that the Supreme Court may have allowed con- 
senting adults to handle serpents if the atmosphere 
of the church services had been different from the 
court's perception of it as gained from the court's 
own record and research (113). Moreover, the State 
Supreme Court's perception seems completely differ- 
ent from that of the Court of Appeals: "The proof 
in this case demonstrates that some care is taken 
to avoid injury to nonparticipants. There is no in- 
dication that an on-looker has ever been bitten. 
We find that the only danger to nonparticipants is 
the possibility that a snake might be dropped and 
escape into the congregation. We cannot know 
how likely such an accident may be, but the even- 
tuality cannot be ignored" (9). 

Justice Henry says there is "no reason" and "no 
occasion" to restrict the injunction as suggested by 
the Court of Appeals — that is, there is no reason 
merely to ensure that no one other than the ser- 
pent-handling adults is endangered rather than stop 
the practice altogether. It is curious that he makes 
this statement, particularly without addressing the 
limitation imposed on the state in a religious ac- 
tivity to select only those methods that are neces- 
sary to avoid an injury to the public. 

In comparison with these two opinions of the 
higher courts on Pack, the opinion by the Tennes- 



see Supreme Court on Harden twenty-seven years 
earlier is uncomplicated. In that opinion, as set 
forth by Justice Tomlinson, the defendants from 
the Dolley Pond church were guilty as charged un- 
less (1) the statute does not apply to church ser- 
vices or (2) the statute violates the religious free- 
dom of the ten defendants. 

The first proposition is summarily answered 
and seems definitive: the language of the statute 
does not indicate the exclusion of anyone, and the 
legislature is concerned with protecting people at 
all times and places. 

The second proposition is also answered with 
some dispatch. The argument runs along this line: 

( 1 .) Religious belief is guaranteed absolutely, 
but religious conduct can be prohibited constitu- 
tionally upon certain principles. One principle is 
that of protecting society from grave and immedi- 
ate danger. 

(2.) The practice is inherently dangerous to 
the participants, and the handlers' precautions to 
avoid danger to others were inadequate. 

(3.) The prohibition of the defendants' ser- 
pent handling, therefore, is constitutional. 

This argument, which at first seems conclu- 
sive, is limited from the point of view of contem- 
porary constitutional analysis. As categorically stated 
by the Court of Appeals: "While it is possible that 
the result reached in Harden might be reached by 
the U.S. Supreme Court today, it is altogether self- 
evident that under modern constitutional theory 
that legal conclusion could not be justified using 
the analytic methods employed by the Harden 
Court" (16). In the context of constitutional in- 
terpretation during 1948 the only necessary crite- 
rion was to show a rational relationship between 
the restrictions placed on religious conduct and 



Serpent Handlers in Tennessee Courts • 81 



the state's interest in those restrictions. Presently, 
it is not adequate to demonstrate that simple rela- 
tionship: "such constraints are now subject to strict 
scrutiny of the nature of the governmental con- 
cern at stake, the relationship of the legislation to 
it, and the availability of other means to achieve 
the end sought that will less drastically invade the 
liberty" (16). 

Tennessee was not the first state to make serpent 
handling a criminal offense. Kentucky passed a law 
in 1940 and, in the decade following, five other 
states were to have similar statutes: Georgia (1941), 
Virginia and Tennessee (1947), North Carolina 
(1949), and Alabama (1950). The laws were simi- 
lar yet diverse. The majority placed emphasis on 
the manner in which a serpent was handled rather 
than on the act itself — so as not to endanger the 
life of (seemingly) another person (Georgia, Virginia, 
Tennessee, Alabama). In the Tennessee code, ac- 
cording to the 1948 State Supreme Court opinion, 
"any person" included the snake handler; the 1975 
opinion says "any other person" (112). North 
Carolina's statute focused on the act and made 
"intentional exposure" to venomous reptiles and 
"inducement to such exposure" illegal; even preach- 
ing the signs would be illegal. Georgia's code made 
it not only illegal but a felony to encourage some- 
one else to handle a poisonous serpent in a man- 
ner dangerous to the other person. A minister of 
the gospel or anyone else in accordance with his 
or her own belief at a religious ceremony was not 
exempted. Kentucky's law was the only one di- 
rected specifically at religious services, and it did 
not designate the poisonous nature of the animal: 
"Any person who . . . uses any kind of reptile in con- 
nection with any religious service or gathering. . . ." 



Punishments for violation were also varied; four 
of these statutes punished the offense as misde- 
meanors with fines ranging from fifty to five hun- 
dred dollars, and two of these with the possibility 
of imprisonment of up to six months (Tennessee, 
North Carolina). Alabama along with Georgia made 
violation a felony with jail sentences from one to 
twenty years. The most stringent punishment was 
Georgia's in the event that the violation effected 
the death of another person, in which case the law 
stated: "the prisoner shall be sentenced to death, 
unless the jury trying the case should recommend 
mercy" (No. 387). Georgia and Alabama have since 
repealed their laws. Virginia and Tennessee have' 
diminished the punishment. The Tennessee code 
as repealed and reinstated reads basically the same 
and authorizes as punishment an imprisonment of 
"not greater than thirty (30) days or a fine not ex- 
ceeding fifty dollars ($50) or both unless otherwise 
provided by statute" (39-17-101; 40-35-1 11). 

States did not require statutes against serpent 
handling, however, to make convictions against it. 
The legal action against Pack and Ball, which was 
based on common law rather than criminal law, is 
a case in point. A suit tried in Virginia also prior 
to the passing of a code is one against a minister, 
Harvey O. Kirk. He was convicted of involuntary 
manslaughter of his wife Anna, "whose death was 
caused by the bite of a snake alleged to have been 
held by Kirk during a church ceremony" (Kirk v. 
Commonwealth 410). The State Supreme Court 
of Appeals reversed the decision and granted a new 
trial on the claim that the jury was not provided 
with proper instructions. Because of its reversal the 
court did not deem it necessary to pursue certain 
claims of the defense. One of the claims was that 
some members of the jury were prejudiced against 



82 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Kirk because of his religious beliefs. Any prejudg- 
ing would have ensued no doubt on the man's wife 
being mentally ill and miscarrying a six-month preg- 
nancy as a result of the serpent bites (411)- The 
Reverend Kirk "pleaded guilty to manslaughter and 
accepted a sentence of three months in jail" (Kane, 
"Snake Handlers of Southern Appalachia" 74). 

Appeals resulting from the state laws were ex- 
ecuted, as in Harden, primarily on the principle of 
constitutionality. In the Kentucky Court of Ap- 
peals, Justice Tilford in the opinion for Lawson 
deals with the dichotomy of belief versus action 
and the limitation on religious freedom in defer- 
ence to public safety. He also discusses in consid- 
erable detail the motivation of the framers of the 
United States Constitution in guaranteeing reli- 
gious freedom: "As Colonists, with the exception 
of those who resided in Maryland, Rhode Island, 
and Pennsylvania, they had been subjected to pun- 
ishment for nonconformance with the established 
religions. . . . Almost every deviation from the es- 
tablished practice or faith constituted a crime. . . . 
From these abuses they sought relief, not the right, 
under the guise of religious freedom, to jeopardize 
the safety, health, or welfare of their fellowman" 
(974-75). 

Rather than give a lengthy exposition, Chief 
Justice Stacy of the Supreme Court of North Caro- 
lina in his opinion on Massey states succinctly: "as 
a matter of law the case comes to a very simple 
question: Which is superior, the public safety or 
the defendants' religious practice? The authorities 
are at one in holding that the safety of the public 
comes first" (180). Similarly, the Court of Appeals 
of Alabama denied Luther (Loyd) Hill's "main con- 
tention . . . that the statute penalizing the practice 
of snake handling is unconstitutional" (883). 



Fundamentally, the argument in these appeals 
first establishes a simple, reasonable relationship 
between the restriction of the right to religious 
freedom and the state's interest. On that basis it 
declares the restriction constitutional. As the Ten- 
nessee State Court of Appeals commented in re- 
gard to Harden, the United States Supreme Court 
might arrive at the same conclusion, but this argu- 
ment is contemporarily insufficient in determining 
the constitutionality of restriction on religious ac- 
tions. Now the principal questions are: ( 1 ) What 
is the subtle balance between the state's right to 
maintain a robust society and the individual's right 
to practice religious beliefs even at personal dan- 
ger? (2) Does the legislation maintain that bal- 
ance? and (3) What is the best method to achieve 
that balance? 

Arrest and Prosecution 

Besides the question of legality there is the matter 
of arrest and prosecution. Ten years after the Ten- 
nessee Supreme Court decision on Pack, Charles 
Prince was bitten by a rattlesnake during a reli- 
gious service in Greeneville, Tennessee, and sub- 
sequently died. The response of the officers of the 
court to this event gives some insight into the at- 
titude of legal authorities in Tennessee toward ser- 
pent handling. Gale Collier was sheriff of Greene 
County in 1985 when the incident occurred. He 
describes the involvement of his department: 

On Monday morning, the nineteenth of August, 
we received a call that a man was sick up in the 
Limestone area of Greene County; and one of my 
sergeants went up to a home up there, Carl Reed's 
home, up on what we call the Bowmantown Road, 
and he went to this house and he found this man 




Charles Prince hooked with a cane by one of the arresting Haywood County officers in 1985 
for violating the North Carolina state code against handling serpents. Photograph by Mike 
DuBose. 



84 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



there that had already died. He got to talking to 
some people that were there, and they said he had 
been bit hy a snake. ... By result of talking to 
those people that were there at the home at the 
time, we found out that he had had a service down 
here at one of those churches, Apostolic Church 
down here on the old Knoxville Highway, just out 
of the city limits of Greeneville here. So, from the 
results of that, we began to investigate as to wh.it 
took place. 

The ensuing autopsy revealed rattlesnake bites on 
the left hand, hemorrhage below the skin, hemor- 
rhage of the stomach, hemorrhage of small and 
large bowel, kidney shock, and aspiration of the 
contents of stomach hemorrhage possibly during 
the throes of death. The imminent cause of death 
reported was "Rattlesnake venom reaction and/or 
strychnine ingestion." No legal actions were filed. 
Sheriff Collier explains: 

The way I read the code on this particular law, it 
was a little bit vague as to what they could do and 
what they couldn't do. I felt like, in my own opin- 
ion after I read that, that that was his freedom to 
worship anyway that he seed fit to; and the people 
that were down there — 1 felt like if they thought 
their life was in danger, they wouldn't have went 
in that church. And if I understood the law right, 
you had to feel like this snake was endangering 
peoples's lives to have it out. So, it's possible he 
could have been in violation of the law. But the 
law, to me, was vague on the thing; and we've 
talked with the Attorney General about it and we 
just decided that maybe we didn't have to do 
nothing, to let it go as it was. 

At the time, Berkeley Bell was the attorney 
general with jurisdiction over Greene County. He 
openly discusses some of the difficulties with the 
code, in particular one of the matters delineated 
by the Tennessee Supreme Court opinion: 



If you take what Justice Henry said in that opin- 
ion, then I can perceive a situation where a per- 
son could handle the snakes in, say, behind glass, 
a glass partition in which there was no danger to 
anyone else and them not being in violation of 
the law. But I would like to put a caveat on that, 
in that that's not what this statute says. A literal 
interpretation of this statute is that it applies to 
any person; that's what it says, "any person." If it's 
interpreted literally, then it could very well apply 
to the person who's actually handling the snakes. 

District Attorney Bell also remarks on the prob- 
lem of prosecution: 

You know, we sit around here and we talk about 
a lot of things that we know go on, as a matter of 
general knowledge, if it's been in the paper or 
whatnot, but when it comes time to bring the 
matter into court, you really have to have proof. 
And that's the rub, so to speak. That's where the 
real rub is — you've got to have it. It's very difficult 
to get. 

The matter of evidence may well be the reason the 
petition against Pack and Ball was made on a pub- 
lic nuisance charge rather than on a violation of 
the state statute. 

Besides the problems with the meaning of the 
statute itself and with obtaining relevant proof of 
endangerment that would hold in court, there are 
other matters to consider. Arresting people who 
are religiously adamant in their actions in order to 
protect them against themselves is impractical in 
many local situations and seems ultimately futile. 
Charles Prince is a case in point. Two weeks be- 
fore he was bitten and died in Greeneville, Charles 
was holding a Sunday afternoon meeting in Canton, 
North Carolina, outside the building that served as 
his home and place of business; he was, ironically, 
a successful distributor of worms used as bait. He 



Serpent Handlers in Tennessee Courts • 85 



had already been raided and had serpents confis- 
cated during a meeting the month before. He knew 
that the sheriff was going to be present and that 
he might he arrested, although he did not seek ar- 
rest. He even called on me as a university profes- 
sor to document the service in the mistaken hope 
that it would then be considered an educational 
event, thus justifying the legality of his use of ser- 
pents. 

The sheriff, Jack Arrington, was indeed there 
and made it clear that the law prohibited handling 
of serpents even in a religious service and that any- 
one doing so would be arrested. Bales of hay had 
been placed around to provide a barrier between 
the onlookers and the participants, who were for 
the most part under a funeral tent that had been 
pitched for shelter. Prince's father from Georgia; 
Allen Williams from Newport, Tennessee; Marvin 
Gregg from Morristown, Tennessee; Jimmy Mor- 
row from Del Rio, Tennessee, and other preachers 
and associates greeted each other with embraces. 
But there was no sign of the familiar serpent boxes. 
Very soon after the service began, a table drawer 
within the tent was opened and Charles came out 
of the tent with an armload of large serpents. Deputy 
sheriffs began closing in around him while Charles 
tried to evade them. Sheriff Arrington walked 
straight up and grabbed one of the serpents, which 
immediately bit him: "1 thought I'd get a closer 
hold up to its head where I could control his mo- 
tion, and I reached to get him closer to his neck, 
and the snake went to the right and come back 
and bit me on my left hand. I finally got him down 
and stepped on his head and got a deputy to come 
stand on his head there. Then I went on to the 
hospital and was treated at the hospital and stayed 
in the hospital maybe fourteen or fifteen days." 



Charles and Allen Williams were arrested on 
warrants for violation (during the previous service 
on 7 July) of North Carolina statute 14-418 pro- 
hibiting "handling of reptiles or suggesting or in- 
ducing others to handle." Charles, in addition, was 
charged with the obstruction of an officer discharg- 
ing his duty. Allen, the son of Jimmy Williams — 
who died from drinking strychnine at the Carson 
Springs service — was bitten a week after the arrest 
in Canton and just a week before attending the 
service in Greeneville when Charles died. 

Serpent handlers who are genuinely commit- 
ted to their beliefs do not discontinue their prac- 
tice because they are put in jail or threatened with 
jail. They identify with the apostles in their perse- 
cutions as the result of following the teachings of 
Christ, and they often quote Peter: "We ought to 
obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Strong 
believers in the signs are willing even to die rather 
than not follow what they believe the Bible and 
the Holy Ghost direct them to do. On one occa- 
sion Perry Bettis of Birchwood, Tennessee, had 
run from officers of the law rather than be caught, 
but later he unequivocally said: "I'll never run again, 
not from no man; I'll take my stand ag'in' the devil 
and I'll stand there. If I'm handlin' snakes and the 
law wants to take me in, that's just fine; I won't 
quit because the law come. I promised the Lord 
that I'd die before I'd run again — I would." 

Pastor Marvin "Bud" Gregg for many years had 
no conflict with legal authorities over serpent han- 
dling at the House of Prayer in Jesus Name in 
Morristown, Tennessee. But conflict began after 
the death of Jimmy Ray Williams, Jr., from a ser- 
pent hite in July 1991 during a church service. There 
was no question, however, of his ceasing to follow 
the signs due to legal restrictions. 



86 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



If we take out the serpent handling, then accord- 
ing to God, the Bible says if we take one word out 
of the prophecy, then our name shall he taken out 
of the Lamb's Book of Life. If 1 quit taking up 
serpents because of the law telling me to quit, 
then I believe that my part will be taken out on 
earth, that my part will be taken out of Heaven. I 
don't see no way in the near future, as my mind 
and my heart and my soul stands today, I don't see 
no way in the near future that I would quit, under 
any circumstances, working the signs of the Gospel. 

Henry Swiney, pastor of the Holiness Taber- 
nacle at Sneedville, Tennessee — a block from the 
courthouse — has handled serpents for some fifty 
years, thirty-five years right in Sneedville and be- 
fore that on Newman's Ridge. He has never had 
any personal confrontation with the legal authori- 
ties about his religious practices. 

Even though law enforcement does not seem 
to affect the practice of the committed serpent han- 
dler, it does sometimes smother the religious fire 
of those less zealous. At Newport there were those 
who became caught up in the enthusiasm of han- 
dling serpents before hundreds of people and the 
national media, but who quit under threat of be- 
ing jailed after the legal actions against Pack and 
Ball. Arrests at Carson Springs did not stop ser- 
pent handling there, but as Alfred Ball says: "The 
trouble with the authorities had some ill effect; 
and on the other hand, it had some good effect. I 
think that that moved out some people who were 
only doing that — I mean, there's no point in de- 
nying there were people who did not live close to 
God as they should that were takin' up serpents. 
Some of those people got hurt, but when all the 
trouble with the authorities came up and some of 
those people began to realize, 'Hey, I could go to 
jail,' they backed up. They got out." 



Whereas some serpent handlers think that le- 
gal authorities should not interfere with the ser- 
vices in any way, others recognize that there should 
be some limitations. Even Liston Pack, who con- 
tested governmental restrictions, says: 

I can see the reason the law should have a law 
concernin' the church because here you got those 
people liable to give one to a minor or a mental 
[mentally incompetent person]. I agree with the 
law one hundred per cent due to that fact, because 
the law is good if a man uses it lawfully, and the 
Bible states that. You take just an ordinary person, 
don't know anything about the anointing of God, 
started — but say for instance, at Sand Hill, I can't 
really recall the man's name, but anyway, he 
crippled a boy for life because the boy was on the 
outside, and he was a non-Christian, but he just 
walked to the front of the church because his 
daddy was a minister, and this man laid this rattle- 
snake around his neck, and he bit him in the right 
hand, and he was crippled all until he died. So, 
you really need a law concerning that kind of 
aspect. Whether it's me or anybody else, operating 
a church in that order, should be closed down or 
stopped or put in jail. 

Liston Pack tells another anecdote that is some- 
what a parable of the responses that serpent 
handlers make to the prohibition of their practice. 
The story is of a certain two men who were tried 
and sentenced to jail: 

They had a chain gang, a road gang. So, the third 
or fourth day, Judge Shepherd called them back 
before him and asked, "Will you not do it no 
more? If you'll give me your word that you'll not 
do it no more, I'll turn you loose." And so one of 
them did give his word that he would not do it no 
more; however, he's never did it no more. [The 
other man] ... he wouldn't give his word so they 
put him back on the road. And it started dying 
out then. 



Serpent Handlers in Tennessee Courts • 87 



The two men were from a church where Listen 
first saw serpents taken up, hut which no longer 
practices the belief. Liston, who himself was put 
in jail for his belief, still handles serpents. 

One wonders why society has taken such strong 
legal actions against serpent handlers. There has been 
no similar reaction to many other members of soci- 
ety who routinely endanger their lives — race car 
drivers, daredevils, and various athletes, to name a 
only few. Does our society have some deep-seated 
psychological response to rituals involving serpents? 
Is our rational world threatened? Richard Davis, a 
professor of philosophy, suggests: "We have 
responded with laws that may seem a bit irrational 
compared to the threat they pose. But we have 
done so out of our concern that the world view we 
hold as Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and as 
Americans in common will not be threatened by 
the extraordinary, the miraculous, the unscien- 
tific." Does the opposition to serpent handlers pro- 
ceed from a concern for the welfare of the state or 
from a challenge to a faith paled by comparison? 
These are difficult questions. 

Other profound philosophical and legal issues 
are involved as well. Society must promote indi- 
vidual values, but society itself cannot exist with- 
out certain restrictions. Every individual is impor- 
tant to the body politic, and what is harmful to the 
individual is harmful to the whole body. But how 
far can the state exert its paternalism in preserv- 
ing the welfare of the whole? The preservation of 



life by the state is of great value, but certainly the 
quality of life often transcends the quantity of life. 
People have always been willing to die for certain 
values regarding the quality of life. 

And there are practical questions involved in 
the legal restrictions placed on serpent handlers. 
Since these laws are enacted primarily to prevent 
harm, and not to punish a malicious act, do they 
effectively deter or merely punish? Or do they in- 
stead stimulate those activities by publicizing them 
and creating martyrs? 

In general, are statutes against serpent han- 
dling good laws? Will such laws stand up in the light 
of contemporary constitutional scrutiny? Will more 
or perhaps all of them eventually be removed from 
the books? Will other measures such as better for- 
mal education resolve any legal expediency? 

Whatever the answers are to these questions, 
the situation in Tennessee and some of its sister 
states remains a classical conflict between church 
and state. Sophocles heard it long ago on the 
Aegean, over tour hundred years before Christ, and 
dramatized it in Antigone. The central figure in his 
tragedy, a young girl attempting to follow her per- 
ception of the will of the gods, wishes to give her 
brother a proper burial. The king warns Antigone 
that, in burying her brother, a traitor, she breaks 
the law created to preserve the state. Antigone re- 
sponds that she is answering a higher law and is 
willing to be put to death rather than disobey it. 
Hers is a holy crime. 



6 



And 

these 

signs 

shall 

follow 



Portraits 



I am often asked "what a serpent handler is really 
like." The implication of such a request is that there 
is some prototypical specimen, whereas in reality 
the variety of individuals is wide. No one person, 
not even several, would give a complete perspec- 
tive on the whole. One might choose an old-time 
preacher like Henry Swiney, Perry Bettis, or Harvey 
Grant. Or perhaps a serpent-handling family, like 
Dewey Chafin's, himself the most internationally 
publicized serpent handler; his mother Barbara 
Elkins, the matriarch of his congregation; his step- 
father Bob Elkins, pastor and mine superintendent; 
his sister, Columbia, who died at twenty-two from a 
serpent bite; and his niece, Columbia's daughter, the 
strikingly unusual organist Lydia. Or one of the 
other leaders — past or present — from various states, 
like Carl Porter in Georgia, Arnold Saylor in In- 
diana, Bruce Helton in Kentucky, or Austin Long 
in Virginia. Or any number of others: a successful 
businessman, a tradesman, a laborer, a farmer, an 
elderly grandmother, a young convert, a quiet un- 
assuming follower, or a charismatic evangelist. Any 
one of the choices would be good; all of them would 
be better, but of course impractical. 

Faced with these choices, I have settled on the 
following portraits. Their purpose is not so much 
to give biographical data as to provide a sense of 
these personalities, a feeling for these lives. I feel 
that the individuals chosen here — Liston Pack, 
Charles Prince, and Anna Prince — do provide a 
significant, if not totally representative, perspec- 
tive on the whole range of serpent handlers. 



Portrait of Liston Pack • 89 



Liston Pack: 

Out of the World's Black Belly 

by Fred Brown 

There is about Liston Pack a certain uneasiness, a 
restlessness that feels like a wolfs breath on the 
back of the neck. In his presence there is a solid 
feeling of the known and yet a sense that the un- 
known is awaiting its turn to emerge, that some- 
thing might tear loose at any minute. In geologic 
terms he would be labeled dichromatic, for there 
are many sides and many colors to this man of God, 
a Holiness preacher unlike any other among the 
Holy Ghost people. 

Here is a man who knows of what he preaches, 
and what he is about. Spawned and reared in some 
of the worst conditions imaginable, Liston Pack has 
visited the depths of depravity numerous times. 

For the young Liston Pack and his eleven sib- 
lings, there were not many opportunities to suc- 
ceed in the ordered, regulated society where pro- 
tective law prevailed. Instead, his world was outside 
the laws of humanity or religion, a world where the 
One-Eyed Jack thrives. He survived in that world 
for twenty-seven years before discovering he had a 
conscience and that there was an easier, gentler 
flow to life than the one upon which he had been 
riding. 

Liston Pack understands sin because at one 
time in his life, sin was the very core of his soul. 
"Before I was a man of God, I was a man of the 
devil. And the devil is strong. Understand, I was 
possessed. I had strong demons." 

Indeed. There were strong demons inside a very 
strong man, a man who encountered not only the 



fist, but also the gun and the knife. Liston Pack has 
been shot and has shot in return. He has been 
slashed and has slashed back. He has been pum- 
meled, and he has counterpunched with power. 

He was born in Cocke County in East Ten- 
nessee in 1940. Although the rest of the nation was 
emerging from the Great Depression and heading 
toward World War II, Cocke County, rural and 
agrarian, was still staggering from poverty, mainly 
because of its isolation. The county, set in the ada- 
gio of mountains that make up the Blue Ridge, is 
at once lovely and uncompromising. 

About the only thing that would make here 
were apples, corn, and moonshine. By the mid- 
19405, the county had earned rightly the reputa- 
tion of being the moonshine capital of the nation. 
Liston Pack's father, Albert, was one of its best 
producers of illegal whisky. And it was at his father's 
knee that Liston and his brothers learned the trade 
of turning fermented corn spiraled through copper 
tubing into a cash crop. 

It was against this backdrop of lawlessness out 
of survival that Liston Pack matured, quickly and 
as hard as the land. He missed out on the inno- 
cence of childhood. Because of his father's reputa- 
tion and abilities, the family had to move often, 
hop-scotching across the county, landing in first 
one area and then another. Born in a place known 
locally as Bat Harbor, Liston had moved a half- 
dozen times before finally settling in Del Rio, a 
community as tough as the sound of its name. 

Before his eighth birthday, Liston knew the 
moonshine trade. By the time he was twelve, he 
had already been arrested for making and selling 
white liquor. Most of Liston's education came to 
him not in a schoolhouse but in the Pack house- 



90 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Pastor Liston Pack preaching on the "signs" at Carson Springs, Tennessee. On the pulpit are jars of strychnine, 
torches for handling fire, and prayer cloths anointed with oil for sick members unable to attend services. 
Photograph 1984 by Mike DuBose, Knoxville News-Sentinel. 



hold, where the lesson was often minute-to-minute 
survival. But there are a few treasured schoolboy 
memories: 

I remember my first school bus. It was a 1930 
Roadster. Kids sat in the back, all stacked on top 
ot each other. We had to walk three miles to 
where we caught the bus. Most of the time, it 
would break down and not get to the bus stop. If it 
did, it broke down on the way to school. Some- 
times, I rode with the teacher. 

School for Liston was but a mirage. Education 
seemed to be for someone else. "I figure that out of 
the seven years I went to school, I didn't go 100 
days in all." Moonshining in the backwoods with 



his father Albert was far more constant than his 
sporadic attendance to classes. He, consequently, 
understood the intricacies of making illegal liquor 
far better than what seemed to him the spaghetti- 
like confusion of reading, writing, and arithmetic. 

Spit out of the educational system and onto 
the hard streets around Newport and Bridgeport in 
Cocke County, he found life was marginal and as 
mean as a cur dog. He learned quickly the world 
of the quick and the dead, finally emerging as a 
leader and thriving on crime and violence. 

From his early teens Liston Pack was not some- 
one an adversary could take lightly. He was quick 
to anger, faster to fight, and ready to kill if neces- 



Portrait of Liston Pack • 91 




Liston Pack, pastor of 
the Carson Springs 
Holiness Church of 
God in Jesus Name; 
his second wife, Mary- 
Kate; and her son 
Jimmy Ray Williams. 
Jr., 1983. (Mary Kate's 
first husband in 1973 
and Jimmy Ray, Jr.. in 
1991 died in "following 
the signs." ) 
Photograph by the 
author. 



sary. "I knew the mob" is how he describes his former 
life. He will not go into any of the details or confirm 
whether he was associated with the Mafia; but some 
weeks, he made as much as eighteen thousand dol- 
lars operating in the black belly of the underworld. 

Let's just say what I was doing was illegal 
without saying what business 1 was in. I can tell 
you, getting saved cost me a lot of money. But, I 
wasted a lot of money, too. 

I had no fear. Nothing. I didn't fear God, 
even. I had violent thoughts toward God. 1 know 
now it wasn't right, hut I didn't then. 

I was the baddest person to come out of Del 
Rio. If I told you to squat and you didn't, I'd squat 
you. 

It is a matter of public record that he spent 
time in a federal facility on an attempted-murder 
charge. In fact his becoming saved more than likely 
saved the lives of at least two people — his and an- 
other man he does not want to name. 

There was a man who had done me bodily harm. 



Physical harm. If I hadn't gotten saved, he would 
he planted by now or at the bottom of a lake in a 
barrel full of cement. And, I don't think I would 
have made it to my 30th birthday. 

At the age of twenty-seven, a battered and 
bruised Liston Pack confronted one of the many 
changes in his life. During a Wednesday night prayer 
evening, he walked into the Lincoln Avenue Church 
of God in Newport. That August night in 1967 al- 
tered him forever. 

He became a man of God, almost overnight — 
well, almost. "It took three nights. I returned to 
church Saturday and Sunday. By Sunday I was 
saved," he says. 

If it was hard for his friends and enemies to 
believe that Liston Pack had indeed changed col- 
ors, it seemed folly for the county's law enforce- 
ment personnel. To them, Liston Pack being over- 
come by religion was a bad joke. 

"I knew I was different, but no one else be- 
lieved it. You will find people today even who still 



92 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name at Carson Springs in a hollow outside of Newport, Tennessee. Photograph 
1984 by Mike DuBose, Knoxville News-Sentinel. 



think I am a dangerous man. But, I'm not," he says, 
his eyes crinkling into a smile that resonates across 
a face that seems to have been reconstructed of 



putty. 



The police didn't believe it. No one did. One 
day about two or three months after I was saved, 
the police chief saw me on the street. He told me 
to get into the car, that I was going to jail. I got 
into the car without saying anything. They knew 
right there that something was different. Had that 
happened a tew days before, there would have 
been not one or even two men who could have 
put me in jail. After a couple of hours in jail, the 
chief said he was letting me out. I asked him what 
I had been arrested tor, and he said nothing. They 
just had to see if I had been saved. I was. 



Liston Pack knew he was a different man be- 
cause he had discovered that he had a conscience 
after all: 

I was just sick about some of the things I had 
done, about some of the violence. I wasn't afraid 
of no human being, but I was afraid the Lord was 
going to get tired of what I was doing. I told every- 
one at the house that 1 was going to go to church 
that night, and you could hear them screaming for 
about two miles. 

When I was baptized, there were people who 
drove for hundreds of miles to see me baptized. It 
was unbelievable. There were people from differ- 
ent organizations and people I knew. It was unbe- 
lievable. 

They couldn't believe the way I wanted to be 



Portrait of Liston Pack • 93 




Worship at Carson Springs, including visiting serpent handlers: member Andrew Click (drumming); Charles Prince, 
of Canton, North Carolina (dancing); pastor's daughter Elizabeth Ann Pack (playing guitar); Pastor Pack 
(speaking in tongues); and serpent handler Jimmy Morrow, of Del Rio, Tennessee. Photograph 1 984 b\ Mike 
DuBose, Knoxville News-Sentinel. 



baptized. Normally, they baptize in the name of 
the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I wanted some- 
one to baptize me in the name of Jesus Christ. I 
couldn't find nobody to do that. It was sort of 
scarce in that part of the country. 

It was my conviction. To be baptized any 
other way would not have helped me at all. In the 
name of Jesus Christ is the name of the family of 
God in heaven and planet Earth and everywhere 
else. See, father is not a name. Son is not a name. 
Holy Ghost is not a name. Jesus Christ is a name 
of the family of God. 

The church he was attending at the time dis- 
agreed with the way he was baptized. They asked 



him to leave. So he began going from church to 
church, keeping the manner in which he was bap- 
tized to himself. "Some of the churches I went to 
were Holiness and some were a homemade mess." 

During that period, he went to Baptist and 
Methodist as well as Holiness churches: "My mother 
was a Methodist and my father was a liquor maker, 
so that is a had mix and a bad strain. Daddy didn't 
attend church." Then he became a preacher: "I ran 
a check on my family tree, and I'm the only minis- 
ter in our family for 500 years back." 

Liston Pack is not a big man, though he is pow- 
erful. His shoulders are thick, and his arms have the 



94 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



appearance of strength. His right arm was almost 
severed in a battle against a man with a knife. He 
is lucky to have the arm today and thought, when 
he was being sewn together in a hospital emer- 
gency room, that he was going to lose the limb. 

His face is ruddy and handsome, sculpted in 
places by several violent insults. A shotgun blast 
in the face was only one of these rude intrusions 
to his outward appearance. He was also shot once 
in the neck by someone armed with a pistol. 

Then in 1978, while cutting timber with a 
chainsaw, he was involved in an accident that eas- 
ily would have destroyed a lesser man. As his saw 
whined through an overhead limb, he incautiously 
allowed the blade to kick back. The double-sided 
saw slammed into the right side of his face and cut 
a swath three inches deep from the top of his fore- 
head, through his right eye, down to the corner of 
his mouth. "It eliminated my right sinus," he says 
of the terrible ordeal. Although stunned by the 
event, Liston Pack managed to pick himself up 
and signal a friend to transport him to a Newport 
hospital. Because of the severity of the wound, he 
was sent by ambulance to a Knoxville hospital 
where he remained for four hours, stretched out on 
a table, awaiting attention. Doctors had to put ten 
inches of nylon mesh inside his head to prevent 
his jaw from sagging onto his neck since muscles 
and tendons had been damaged by the power saw. 
For eight days he wavered between life and death 
in the hospital. Eventually he healed. 

The kind of vitality and intensity with which 
he approaches lite is similar to the driving storm 
he brings to the pulpit. Pack did not begin as a 
preacher, but he says God called him. "I didn't 
want to become a preacher at first. I just wanted 
to be like anybody else, go to church and Sunday 



school and go home. . . . But," he says almost apolo- 
getically, "I have a gift." That is true. 

Liston Pack can arouse a congregation. His 
preaching is a memorable event; the delivery is at 
once common and uncommon. There is an alle- 
gro-like symmetry to his sermons. They come hard 
and fast like the sermons of many of his colleagues, 
but there are few who have the sharp edge like 
Liston Pack. When he becomes anointed, it is a 
physical thing. He turns beet red, beginning at his 
hairline. Like a faucet letting loose fresh blood, the 
anointing cascades down his face, flushing it rouge 
and then eddying into his arms in ribbons. His ser- 
mons, punctuated by pacing and finger pointing, 
can last for three hours or more with Bible verses 
streaming one after the other. But he is always cau- 
tious to warn his congregation that to pick up a 
serpent is a dangerous thing. Liston Pack is as 
forceful for the Christian religion as he once was 
for the religion of violence. He has never been one 
to do things halfway. Says one friend, "I'd believe 
Liston Pack sooner than I would Billy Graham!" 

He became an associate pastor of the Holiness 
Church of God in Jesus Name in 1969 under the 
Reverend Jimmy Williams. His brother, Buford 
Pack, was also a member. The church, established 
by Liston Pack, Williams, and Alfred Ball about 
eighteen months after Liston was baptized, is in 
the coil of Cocke County in Carson Springs out- 
side of Newport. The little white clapboard build- 
ing, formerly a hunting camp, sits quietly in a 
pretty wooded glen beside a noisy spring. 

Williams was the church's first pastor. He did 
not always agree with Liston Pack, and Liston did 
not always agree with Williams. But Liston says 
that Williams was a very good preacher and he was 
glad for him to do the preaching, at least for a 



Portrait of Liston Pack • 95 



while. "I just wasn't ready, and I really didn't want 
to be a minister," Liston Pack says of that time. 

Liston Pack had other demons to overcome, 
mainly reading and writing. He struggled with 
words. They turned to iron in his mouth. A minis- 
ter needs to he able to communicate. "Jimmy Wil- 
liams was way ahead of me," he recalls. "I just 
couldn't hold a crowd." But in 1971 Liston Pack 
took over the tiny flock at Carson Springs and has 
been its pastor since, except for one period of sev- 
eral years. 

In 1973 an event took place that forced an- 
other change on Liston Pack. His brother and 
Williams died after drinking strychnine during the 
same service at the little church. A few days later, 
a temporary injunction was issued against the 
church from handling deadly snakes and from 
drinking poison. That order eventually made its 
way to the State Court of Appeals and the State 
Supreme Court, but Liston Pack and another min- 
ister had to serve time in the Cocke County jail 
for refusing to pay their fines. Liston Pack was and 
still is willing to undergo any hardship to uphold 
his belief in the Bible. 

There is little to dispute that the Bible is his 
cornerstone of knowledge, for the Bible is the book 
that not only taught him how to read, but also 
how to write. "I have a gift," he says, "I know the 
Bible. I have read it maybe 100 times, and have 
studied it with people more than 25 times. There 
is a difference in reading the Bible and studying it. 
It may take you a year to read it through, but years 
to study it." 

He continued to pastor Carson Springs Church 
after the deaths of Williams and his brother, but an- 
other event took control of his life that set about 
more change. "I backslid. I fell from grace in late 



1976. I didn't stay backslid all the way up to 1983, 
but I had already resigned." 

Part of the reason for his backsliding was that 
he had gotten a divorce. His wife left with his two 
children to start a new life in Florida. For thirteen 
years he had no contact with his wife or his chil- 
dren. By coincidence, his daughter called him on 
his fiftieth birthday; she had just discovered that 
her stepfather was not her biological father. 

During the seven years he was away from the 
church, Liston returned to drinking and some of 
his previous rowdy ways. In the meantime, the 
church had elected John Wayne Brown as its min- 
ister. Later came two more preachers before Liston 
returned to the church — this time with even more 
fervor. 

Because of his intensity in the pulpit Liston 
Pack has always found a following, not only in his 
church in Carson Springs, where he has been sol- 
idly ensconced, but also across the country. Par- 
ticularly after the bout in the Appeals Court and 
Supreme Court, he was courted by Holiness con- 
gregations and had speaking engagements from 
California to Michigan. 

His beliefs regarding religious conduct are as 
varied as the man. For example, on women in the 
church: 

The woman is the helpmate, hut the same 
spirit of God that is in a man is in a woman. They 
are the weaker vessel, but they got a right to do a 
lot of things in the church and I don't think they 
should be put down. Without a woman there 
never would have been a man. Women can do 
many things in the church. They can prophesy 
and do basically everything a pastor can do. 

A church should be run by a governmental 
hody. The members should have just as much to 
do with the church as anybody else. If a woman 



96 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Buford Pack and Jimmy Ray Williams (wearing the inscribed drape) during a 1969 service in Chester, South 
Carolina, four years before their deaths at Carson Springs by strychnine poisoning. Photographer unidentified. 



can prophesy and she can speak in tongues and 
handle serpents, then I think a woman can do any 
of the work of any of the offices of the church, 
except being ordained. But she could share the 
message. There is no scripture in the Bible that 
says you can ordain a woman. The Apostle Paul 
never did ordain a woman. Apostle Peter or Christ 
never did ordain a woman. I know many different 
women who say they are ordained and that they 
are pastors, but there is a little bit of a disagree- 
ment with me because I do not think they can be 
ordained, but I'm not saying their liberty is taken 



from them to obey God. They are ministers and 
helpmates in the church and a helpmate is a help 
to the pastor or the trustees or whoever it might 
be in the church government. 

A lot of people stand against me on this. I 
think a woman can preach as good as a man, but I 
think she should have a man over the business 
and the government of her services to make the 
decisions because a woman is the weaker vessel. 
But if a woman can't do anything, then a man 
can't either; and we might as well fold it up. 



Portrait of Charles Prince • 97 



About divorce — his second came in 1992 — he 
has these thoughts: 

It is how it is approached. If the husband and 
wife are mistreating one another, if they come to 
where they can't agree or get along, and they 
commit adultery and be unfaithful, then God is 
not pleased with it. 

In some churches divorce would get your 
head cut off. If a minister is going with two differ- 
ent women, then he would have to be put out. He 
would have to be loose from one before he could 
marry the other. And he could only marry in the 
Lord. 

I don't believe God would put two sinners 
together [i.e., join them together in marriage]. 
Some churches state that the first person you have 
sex with is your wife. I would not think that. There 
is no scripture to back that up. 

Some people think that when you go buy a 
set of licenses at the courthouse, that is your wife. 
I don't think that either, because God never built 
a courthouse or bought a set of car tags. 

If you are married, you have got to keep your- 
self unspotted; and the one wife is all God in- 
tended for you to have. 

On how women should dress: 

A woman looks her best in a dress; but on the 
other hand, there is no scripture in the New Tes- 
tament that says a woman cannot wear pants. 

As far as makeup, it would be entirely up to 
them, but I think they would look better if they 
would leave it off their face. They are just cover- 
ing up something. There is scripture that says a 
woman is not to wear makeup. There is scripture 
that says for her not to cut her hair. They shouldn't 
wear makeup or cut their hair. That's what the 
Bible says. 

As for taking up serpents or drinking deadly 
poison, Liston says it is certainly not a test of his 



faith but a celebration of it. "You don't put the 
Lord to a test in the five signs. You don't put God 
to a test. God does not tempt a man. The only way 
you tempt God is by being disobedient to Him and 
not doing what He asks you to do." 
On sin, Pack has this to say: 

If you see it is going to cause a fall from grace, 
you should not do it. 

The worse sin you can commit is homosexu- 
ality. That is misusing their bodies one to the 
other. That won't work in a church or nowhere 
else. That is very unclean. 

You can't please people to start. Mankind has 
got to make a stand and stand for God. If any- 
thing is a sin, it is a sin; but what I say is a sin 
might not be a sin. But if the Bible says it is a sin, 
then it is a sin. 

Charles Prince: 
God's Hero 

by Fred Brown 

Charles Herman Prince believed that taking up 
serpents in praise of the name of the Lord was a 
pronouncement of victory over evil. For most of 
his forty-seven years, he structuted his life based 
on those beliefs, which were impressed on him in 
childhood by his father, Ulysses Gordon Prince. In 
the end, those same beliefs accounted for his death 
in Greeneville, Tennessee, in August 1985. For 
Charles Prince, there was no othet road, no re- 
morse and no sorrow over it. He died in everlast- 
ing faith that good would overcome evil, that the 
Word would prevail. It was God's way. 

Prince's story is not easily told, for here was a 
complicated man. Just when you feel you have him 




Charles Prince "taking up serpents" and quenching through faith "the violence of fire' 
(Heh. 11:34). Photograph 1984 by Mike DuBose. Knoxville News-Sentinel. 



Portrait of Charles Prince • 99 



in focus, you have to look again. Who was he, and 
how did he come to be highly respected and sought 
after throughout the South to preach at Holiness 
churches? 

Prince was horn into a large family. There were 
two sisters and five brothers, some born before the 
beginning of the Great Depression and others into 
the teeth of that raw economic disaster that hit 
hard the South and men like Prince's father, who 
walked five miles to work in a sawmill for one dol- 
lar a day in wages. 

His father became an itinerant Baptist preacher, 
traveling the back roads, hitting the small crosshair 
towns in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. 
From an early age, Charles and his brothers and 
sisters grew up listening to their father and attend- 
ing worship services in home prayer meetings and 
on the streets near Gastonia, North Carolina. Ulysses 
Prince began with a Sears and Roebuck guitar and 
a Bible. Anna, Charles's older sister, remembers 
that "God was the number-one conversation in 
our family. As children we just played and prayed. 
It was a way of life." 

They grew up watching their father and mother 
dancing in the fire, ignited by the word, handling 
dangerous reptiles, and reaching into wood-burning 
stoves and shoveling out handfuls of red-hot coals. 
And more. Ulysses Prince was rock hard in his be- 
liefs. He would go off into the woods and fast and 
pray for days. The father made certain his children 
were washed in the Blood of the Lamb and im- 
mersed in the Word. At night when his children 
were growing up around Copperhill and Turtle- 
town in Tennessee and Lowell, North Carolina, 
he placed boxes of rattlesnakes underneath Anna's 
and Charles's beds. Each night Anna and Charles 



fell asleep listening to the buzz and hiss of large 
snakes. 

When Charles was six and Anna was nine, 
they attended their first snake-handling service with 
their father. Anna recalls the story: "Here was my 
daddy in the back. He had never seen it before. 
He went leaping up through there, jumped over 
this white picket fence in front of the platform, 
reached down, pulled up a copperhead, and held it 
up. Charles did the very same way the first time he 
was in a snake-handling church as an adult." 

Ulysses began to preach full time, without pay. 
The family had to depend upon the good hearts of 
their mountain neighbors to provide them with 
what food they got to eat. "They wouldn't pass the 
plate in their church," says Anna; "my father thought 
you weren't supposed to ask for money. As a result 
we got poorer and poorer. I went from the time I 
was nine until I was 15 without a store-bought 
dress." 

Ulysses told the mountain people at one of his 
services that he wanted someone to bring him a 
rattlesnake. They did, and at that night's service 
Charles watched as his father took up the serpent 
while Anna and her mother were in a back room 
praying. 

Their evangelist father, Anna remembers, did 
not intend to stay in any one area long. On an av- 
erage they moved every six months to a new place 
with new people and new needs for their father. 
"We just had to tag along and survive the best way 
we could." 

There were times when their father would fast 
for as long as twenty-one days on nothing but wa- 
ter, and there were the marathon prayers after a 
long day of street preaching in Georgia or Tennes- 



100 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



see. "We would wake up in the morning and the 
cornbread would he frozen on the top of the cook 
stove," remembers Anna, but "the first thing we 
did was hit the floor and pray. At the breakfast 
table we had prayer. If we had any lunch, which 
usually we didn't, there was prayer. At supper 
there was prayer, and before we went to bed there 
was a long prayer. If anyone was sick, everything 
stopped and we prayed. We didn't go to the doc- 
tor. There wasn't an aspirin in the house. We had 
Rosebud Salve, a jar of Vaseline and some Blair 
hand lotion. There was no medicine in the house." 

Following his father's example, Charles Prince 
for ten years, from 1975 until his death, was a min- 
ister for the Holiness Church, crisscrossing the 
South's rutted back roads. In 1975, married for the 
second time to a tourteen-year-old, Charles Prince 
experienced a conversion. 

Charles was owner of a bait shop in Canton, 
North Carolina. He was living the good life and 
clearly enjoying himself, his beer, and his ciga- 
rettes. Anna and their brother Harley had been 
meeting regularly at prayer sessions and had de- 
cided to talk to Charles. But, shortly before his sis- 
ter and brother came to see him, Prince had be- 
gun to search for new meaning in his life. He 
looked back at the days when he was a child, go- 
ing to church with his father, venturing into the 
mountains to fast for consecutive days with only 
water to drink. 

"I questioned him on the Bible and was 
shocked at how little he knew. He could barely re- 
member any verses," Anna recalls. The trio began 
meeting in the basement of the bait shop with oth- 
ers. It was during one of these sessions that Charles 
Prince stepped over the religious line and set off 
on a course that first changed his life and then 



took it over completely. "Charles said one evening 
that he had invited over a man who had lost his 
arm in a suicide attempt. The man wanted us to 
pray his arm back on for him. I told Charles that I 
didn't think we were up to that just yet," Anna 
said. "I told him we needed to start with something 
like trying to lift a coffee cup; and if our faith was 
strong enough to do that, then we might be able 
to pray that fellow's arm back on for him. I told 
Harley that we had to make sure we let Charles 
down easy on this one." 

Charles — a short, stocky man with jet black 
hair — dropped to the floor as if he had been stunned 
and began praying, praying for the cup to levitate. 
The coffee cup did not budge. "He said it must 
have [moved] and that we blinked and didn't see 
it. He said he knew it lifted because he had asked 
God to move it." Anna managed to convince her 
brother that, if they were to pray for the man's arm 
and fail, it might do him more harm than good. 
Charles listened to his sister and decided not to 
attempt reattaching the arm through prayer, but 
from that point on he was never quite the same 
again. 

He sold his bait shop for fifty thousand dollars. 
He gave his second wife, Linda Gail, half of the 
money and the rest to the poor. "He just gave away 
$25,000," Anna said. "He'd see someone walking 
along the street and give them $100 bills." 

It was then he decided he would become a 
Holiness preacher. At first he thought he would go 
to Jerusalem, but he wound up in Haiti, attempt- 
ing to establish a mission. "I never did know why 
he tried something like that," Anna relates. "But, 
he only stayed a week before he came home. He 
said it was a good thing that he had a bodyguard 
with him because people tried to rob him." 



Portrait of Charles Prince • 1 01 




Charles Prince drinking the "deadly thing" while Pastor's son Robert Lee Pack (who does not follow the signs) 
plays guitar with visitor Marvin Hill on banjo. Photograph 1983 by the author. 



In church one day, Prince decided he had to 
test his beliefs. Rather than conduct that test in 
front of the congregation, he went home to his 
bedroom. He jumped inside the closet and closed 
the door, where he prayed for hours. And then he 
downed a bottle of lye. It set him on fire. 

From my lips to the bottom of my stomach I was 
burning. I heard voices. They were telling me that 
it would do no good to go to bed, I was going to 
die. The voice told me it would do no good to go 
to church, I was going to die. I knew it was the 
devil talking to me. I laid down on the bed and 
my Bible opened to Mark 16, the 16th verse. It 
just opened like that. When I read that word shall 
the fire went out. I knew then I wasn't going to 
die. I returned to the service and shouted. 

He never stopped shouting for the Lord, not as 
long as he lived. 

Whenever Charles took command of a Holi- 



ness service, it became both an uncharted religious 
odyssey and an old-fashioned foot-stomping event. 
Prince would breathe fire from kerosene torches 
made from rags stuffed into soft-drink bottles. He 
would drink poison from fruit jars and walk on snakes 
with his bare feet. In his bare hands he would hold 
poisonous scorpions, their tails arched ominously. 
He would smile at them as they crawled about his 
puffy palms and fat fingers. 

Prince's faith was strong. He believed as Paul 
wrote: "The last enemy that shall be defeated is 
death." He was simply a man born into the old- 
time religion mold. When he paced behind the 
pulpit, people in the congregation would stand, 
hands raised over their heads, waving and waver- 
ing and tapping into the spirit and his energy. The 
constant hum of rapture would swell and recede, 
punctuated by an occasional "Glory to God" shoot- 
ing up to jar the thick drone. When Prince was 



102 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



really on, the floors would vibrate and bounce and 
the atmosphere would be charged with electric ex- 
pectancy. Prince delivered sermons with zest and 
some showmanship. He was like other Sunday sav- 
iors, sweating hard, preaching hard, charging back 
and forth before the flock, causing the pine boards 
beneath his feet to squeak and to groan. 

This man rose to such a feverish pitch in his 
zeal to spread the Word that his deeply religious 
family became concerned about their son and 
brother. You never knew what to expect from 
Prince, although it was always exciting. 

Then, at the apex of his ministry in the churches 
of the hollows, where rattlesnakes and strychnine 
and the scriptures mingle in a deadly serious game 
of faith on Saturday nights and all day Sundays, 
he died. His death came as a shock and a surprise 
to the Holiness world. He had been preaching to 
saints and sinners alike on that sweltering night in 
the Apostolic Church of God in Greeneville, Ten- 
nessee. Prince had just pulled a very large yellow 
rattlesnake from a box when the rattler sank two 
fangs into the muscular section between the thumb 
and forefinger of his left hand. Two smaller wounds 
were underneath the thumb where the animal had 
slammed in two stubby, sawed-off teeth to assure 
that its victim would not free itself soon. 

Prince rarely ever acknowledged when he had 
been bitten, and similarly on this night, he disre- 
garded the bites and laid the snake on the pulpit. 
Despite the effects of venom, he continued his ser- 
mon, pausing from time to time to drink strych- 
nine from a clear mason jar. 

After concluding his sermon, he began to dance, 
whirling and hopping, perspiring heavily, as was 
usual. He waved a kerosene torch back and forth 
underneath his chin. Several times he stopped to sit 



on a pew; after a few moments' rest, he would rise 
and take another drink from the jar. As time 
elapsed, he became less and less active until he be- 
came limp. Several parishioners carried Prince 
from the church. They drove him to Carl Reed's 
house in Limestone, Tennessee. 

Even his wife was convinced of his invincibil- 
ity. When he was bitten, there was concern; but it 
was more of how long it would take for him to re- 
cover, not that he might not recover. "1 think she 
was the only one who was shocked when Charles 
died," said Anna. "He had convinced her that if 
he went to the hospital he would die. As long as 
he stayed out of the hospital, he would be keeping 
the faith and the Lord wouldn't let him die. This 
was his way of thinking. He had made her promise 
that she would never call an ambulance for him, 
no matter how unconscious he got." 

In the end Prince was a man of the Word, and 
he died by his interpretation of the Word as church 
members from Tennessee, North Carolina, Geor- 
gia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida, and Ohio 
gathered to pray at his side and tenderly but in- 
tently stroke his head and body with their hands. 
They used prayer to battle death, which was the 
way Prince wanted it. His only medicine — the only 
medicine Prince said he ever needed — was large 
doses of faith. 

He followed the church's beliefs to a degree 
that commanded the awe of others of his faith. In 
times when he perceived that God's law collided 
with man's law, Prince never faltered, and those 
who knew him said he had a highly charged love 
for his religion. Prince liked to say, "God said it. I 
believe it. That settles it." 

This, however, was not Prince's first embrace 
with death. Seven times before the fatal bite, he 



Portrait of Charles Prince • 1 03 




rnwu'Hi 



uniiiM; 



WL 




Pallbearers taking the body of Charles Prince across the road to be buried at a site that 
was once a brush arbor where his father preached. Gene Sherbert leads the group. 
Photograph 1985 by Mike DuBose. 



104 • Serpent- Handling Believers 



■ 




Charles Prince drinking strychnine at Carson Springs 
in 1984. Photograph by the author. 



had been bitten preaching in Jesus' name. There 
were days when he was bedridden from those bites, 
and very few ever knew that at one time he was 
quite afraid of cottonmouth moccasins. "There are 
some snakes that you can handle and others that 
you are instinctively afraid of. I was afraid of moc- 
casins," he said a few weeks before his death. But 
in the years of handling the reptiles and other 
crawling things, he had found peace with himself 
and with his faith. At the end, there was abso- 
lutely no fear in him. "It doesn't matter now," he 
said not long before he was fatally bitten. "I will 
take up any serpent." 

He was so devout that he traveled hundreds of 
miles throughout East Tennessee, North Carolina, 
Georgia, Kentucky, and West Virginia to attend 
Friday- and Saturday-night services and Holiness 
homecomings on Sundays. He was becoming the 
Billy Graham of the Holiness preachers. 

There was one quality about Prince that set 
him slightly apart from most others of the persua- 
sion. He seldom waited for the anointing before 



reaching into the long and wide, primitively deco- 
rated wooden serpent boxes. 

Prince usually was the first to the box and the 
first to take up a snake, any snake, and the first in 
line to drink strychnine. Once he began, there was 
no stopping or turning back, not until the service 
had run its course. "If it is not deadly, then I don't 
want to drink it," he once said. His black hair 
would jitter on his head as he bounced in his seat 
or skipped on one foot across the room. His eyes 
would look toward heaven, and there was a rap- 
ture about him. He smiled and at times would hold 
one finger up. Some nights he would sing and 
make a joyful noise unto the Lord. 

At one of his last services, Prince brought in a 
quart jar of strychnine, saying: "It's still got the 
feathers in it." The feathers, he explained, are the 
undiluted crystals of strychnine floating in the 
deadly, colorless liquid. Streaks swirled in it like 
heat rising off of hot pavement. "He's a good God!" 
he shouted that night. "He don't put out the 
flames. He just takes away the pain." Prince be- 
lieved that. 

One night at a church service in Carson 
Springs, Tennessee, Prince bounded on one foot 
across the church floor, the first finger on his raised 
right hand pointed upward signifying the number 
one — the one God. Then he reached into a box 
and grabbed a canebrake rattler. The snake 
weaved before him. He took the snake by its tail 
and smiled and waved the rattler in one hand as 
he danced with it. After a few moments he swung 
it like a short piece of stubby skip rope. The snake 
moved against the force of gravity like a thick pen- 
dulum, its body worming upward as if to climb on 
the air, its tongue licking quickly. Next, Prince 
scooped up a half-dozen snakes from several boxes 




Charles Prince, holding serpent, and Liston Pack "tread" on serpents. Photograph 1984 by Mike 
DuBose, Knoxville News-Sentinel. 



106 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



and clutched them to his chest. This was his sig- 
nature, an armful of snakes. They squirmed and 
writhed in his arms. He looked like a Medusa. His 
attention suddenly became focused on a beauti- 
fully decorated black snake box containing a huge 
Eastern diamondback rattler. The words of Mark 
16 were etched across the box's lid. Before reach- 
ing for it, Prince began to shout, "He's a good God!" 
Pulling what seemed to be an endless rattlesnake 
from the box, he lifted the diamondback and held 
it high. The big snake waved back and forth in his 
hands, rattling a brittle warning. Prince hoisted it; 
and even with the snake held at the length of his 
arm, which was stretched up straight above his 
head, Prince had to lean at an angle to keep the 
snake's tail from dragging the floor. Its head was 
the size of a man's fist. The snake had appeared at 
only one other service, and no one had dared to 
handle it. "It comes out of the box biting at the 
wind," said the pastor of the church, Liston Pack. 
"It's a big 'un, and it's mean," he said. Prince strode 
before the pulpit while the rattler stiffened like 
coiled cable as if to strike him below his elbow. 
Shifting the weight of the diamondback onto his 
shoulders to free one hand, Prince retrieved a 
canebrake rattler from another handler and set it 
on the floor. Shoes off, he stepped on the mid-sec- 
tion of the snake with his right foot. With his free 
left foot, he roughly raked the writhing ends of the 
snake. He unwound the diamondback from 
around his arm and began again to dance on one 
foot, holding the snake high. "Praise the Lord and 
Glory to God!" he shouted. He swung the arm- 
thick diamondback as he had the other snake, 
then held it high, and looked it in the face and 
smiled. "He's a good God!" Prince shouted again 



as he uncoiled the diamondback from his 
neck and laid it on a church bench directly 
in front of the pulpit. The snake filled the 
bench, spilling over the side of the worn arm 
rest. 

Then the snakes were returned to their boxes. 
Prince stepped behind the pulpit and took a gulp 
from one of the jars he had laced with a half tea- 
spoon of strychnine. He picked up a soft-drink 
bottle filled with kerosene. Someone lit the wick 
and Prince held its orange and blue flame in place 
underneath his chin and paraded back and forth. 
The flame spread as though from a yellow paint- 
brush up both sides of his chubby face. Soot coated 
his lips from the smoke; his shirt collar was singed 
from the heat. 

"The serpent does not have the keys to heaven 
or hell. We are not looking to die. We are looking 
for eternal life," he said on that night. 

His greatest encounter came a few weeks be- 
fore his death. He was convinced that his religion 
and his people were being persecuted. "When 
God's laws conflict with man's law, then I'll have 
to follow God's law," he said. 

Sheriff Jack Arrington, of Haywood County, 
North Carolina, had confiscated four boxes of 
snakes just before services began in an open-air 
tent behind Prince's bait shop. A cottonmouth 
moccasin was shot six times during the service by 
a deputy, and the sheriff warned the worshippers 
not to bring their snakes again. No one was ar- 
rested that day, though Prince and others were 
told that it was a misdemeanor in North Carolina 
to handle snakes in a public place. 

"We will hold our services the first Sunday of 
every month," Prince said in response to the 



Portrait of Charles Prince • 1 07 




Charles Prince "taking up" serpents at Carson Springs. 
Photograph 1984 by Mike DuBose, Knoxville News-Sentinel. 



J 08 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



sheriffs order. He also asked that his snakes he re- 
turned. The snake boxes, but not the snakes, were 
brought back. 

A month later in Canton, Prince hauled out 
an armload of reptiles from a table drawer during a 
worship service. The sheriff and his men again ap- 
peared and moved in. The sheriff was bitten by a 
yellow timber rattler and had to be hospitalized for 
weeks from the bite. After the incident, he retired 
from law enforcement. Prince and Allen Williams 
of Newport were arrested that day and charged 
with handling deadly snakes. Prince was also charged 
with obstructing a law enforcement officer. 

Prince was pleased with the outcome, saying 
he was willing to go to jail. He began preparing for 
his court appearance and even looked forward to 
challenging the law that denied him his religious 
freedom. Before the court date, however, he was 
dead. 

Anna recalled a time three years prior to the 
fatal bite in Greeneville when her brother was struck 
by another rattler. Then, he had been taken to the 
home of John Brown, another snake-handling 
preacher. "The Rev. John Brown and all the 
people in his home were just as warm and con- 
cerned as they could be. They gave us a pallet on 
the floor and we stayed with Charles." 

But things were quite different in Greeneville. 
"This time," Anna says, "they didn't offer me a pil- 
low, they didn't ask me it I'd like to sit down. All 
they did was read me my cigarette rights when I 
came in that front door: 'We don't allow no smok- 
ing in here.' That was our welcome at the front 
door. They didn't even introduce themselves. This 
was altogether different from the time when 
Charles was at the John Brown home. It was as dif- 
ferent as night and day. In fact I think it was night, 



darkness versus light. At John Brown's home, they 
had cried and prayed through the night. Some- 
thing went wrong here. If God had been in total 
control here, my brother wouldn't have died. I feel 
like these people had the wrong spirits, not all of 
them, but some of them." 

Charles Prince died early Monday morning 
after suffering nearly thirty-six hours. Charles's fa- 
ther preached the funeral in Turtletown, Tennes- 
see, a land of stenciled dreams and signs proclaim- 
ing "Jesus Saves," "Prepare to meet thy Maker," 
and "Get right with God." The old minister, cry- 
ing at times, pleaded with Holiness hard-liners to 
let his son rest in the bosom of their faith. Some 
in the congregation had wanted to initiate a prayer 
vigil in which they would attempt to pray Charles 
Prince back to life. In the end, Prince's father held 
firm and the emotional funeral was held without 
incident. 

A kind of quiet settled for a while over the 
faith. One of its strongest soldiers had been re- 
moved from the field. He died never really achiev- 
ing what he had set out to do: to have a profound 
effect on the world for Christ. Charles Herman 
Prince was just beginning to be heard when he 
died the only way he could have, preaching and 
confirming the Word as he knew and understood it. 



A Snake-Handler's Daughter: 
An Autobiographical Sketch 

by Anna Prince 

I paced the floor of my home in Canton, North 
Carolina, late Saturday night in August 1985. My 
brother, Charles Prince, had gone to a big snake- 



Portrait of Anna Prince • J 09 




Thirty-five-year-old Ulysses Prince street preaching 
with loudspeakers mounted on his van. (His daughter 
Anna generally helped draw a crowd by singing). 
Photograph 1946 courtesy of Anna Prince. 



handling meeting in Tennessee. Over the previ- 
ous few months, Charles had become a celebrated 
leader of religious snake handlers in the southeast. 

He had nearly daily national media coverage 
as the press followed him to his meetings and even 
to his home. Radio stations from other states called 
his home to say, "Mr. Prince, you're on the air!" 

I had hoped that none of my five brothers would 
follow in our father's footsteps. Our Dad, Ulysses 
G. Prince, was a fearless snake handler during our 
childhood. I have suffered much over snake han- 
dling. 



Charles had been the quiet one, reserved, 
operating his wholesale fish-bait company where 
he was known as the "worm king." But something 
"clicked" in him! He began visiting snake- 
handling churches, becoming bold and daring, risk- 
ing his life three or more times a week by drinking 
strychnine mixed with water, handling snakes and 
fire, often at the same time! As he became more 
daring, I became terrified he might go too far. I 
spent many sleepless nights fearing for his life. 

The shrill ring of my phone sent a chill through 
me! The worst had happened! Charles had been bit- 
ten by a rattlesnake and was spitting up blood! 
Having witnessed eight snake bites, I had never 
seen anyone spit up blood. Had he drunk poison 
as well? I nervously dialed my parents in Georgia. 
They had to be told: "Daddy," I said gently, "A 
rattlesnake bit Charles! It's bad. I'm going to him. 
I'll call you from Greeneville, Tennessee. Stay home 
and take care of Mama! Pray, Daddy." 

Fearing he might die before I could reach him, 
I prayed out loud as I drove the mountain curves. 
But my prayers were interrupted by self-pity and 
anger. How dare he do this to me! Hadn't I suf- 
fered enough from snake handling? I had begged 
him not to do it anymore. In a desperate effort to 
erase my painful memories and find my own iden- 
tity, I had become an overachiever, running a small 
construction company, becoming a successful 
songwriter and performer, teaching a night class 
for songwriters at a local college, and being a can- 
didate for County Commissioner. When I was 
nominated for Distinguished Woman of North 
Carolina to the Governor's Office, I felt I had 
finally succeeded in burying my past as the daugh- 
ter of a snake handler and poison drinker. Now 
Charles had brought snake handling back into my 



1 10 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



life and might be dying from it himself. My other 
four brothers and younger sister were successful 
business people, most in other states, having noth- 
ing to do with snake handling. And like me they 
never mentioned it to anyone. 

Directions given to me over the phone took 
me to a rural area near Greeneville, Tennessee, 
and to a new, two-story brick house with a 
groomed yard and swimming pool. The door was 
opened by Carl Reed, pastor of the church where 
Charles had been bitten — a handsome man in his 
late thirties. I felt grateful that he was caring for 
my brother and followed him through to the large 
master bedroom with a spacious adjoining bath. A 
king-sized waterbed centered the beautiful room, 
which was off-white, trimmed in navy. Charles lay 
on the plush white carpet beside the bed on a 
blanket, because the waterbed made him nauseous. 

He was wearing a white T-shirt and covered 
from the waist down with a handmade quilt. His 
eyes met mine and he offered a weak smile, but I 
could see that he wished I had not come. He didn't 
want me to see him down and helpless. Holding 
his composure as long as he could, he began swing- 
ing his bent and covered knees left and right in a 
steady motion, murmuring: "Mercy, Lord, have 
mercy, Lord," in constant chant, "Mercy, Lord, 
mercy, Lord." His left arm, stretched straight out 
from his shoulder, was turning a grayish blue, swol- 
len to over twice its size. 

1 knelt on the floor between his waist and his 
outstretched arm, closely looking him over and 
touched his hand, ever so gently. He winced in 
pain! There were three, possibly four, sets of fang 
marks, where the snake had taken his left thumb 
base into its mouth, biting repeatedly. His hand 
and arm looked like a grotesque balloon! Noticing 



the dried blood in the corners of his mouth and 
the red splattered spots on his shirt, I asked: "Charles, 
did you drink any poison?" He nodded. I said, "You 
drank poison after you were bitten?" He nodded 
yes. I groaned and moved to the foot of the bed, 
out of his sight, buried my face into the thick car- 
pet, and joined him in chanting, "Mercy, Lord, 
have mercy, Lord." 

Three young men who attended him were 
seated on the edge of the bed. They were praying 
softly and bending over occasionally to squeeze a 
few drops of ice water on his aching hand and arm. 
As soon as they were gone, I moved quickly to my 
former place beside him and noticed his arm was 
becoming a strange gray color with pockets of poi- 
son turning his skin vivid scarlet, purple, and yel- 
low in places. His swollen face quivered as if he 
had wiggle worms under his skin. 

Fully aware that Charles like other snake han- 
dlers refused medical treatment, I cautiously asked, 
"Charles, can I call an ambulance? Can I get you a 
doctor? Please!" He mustered a firm "No!" turning 
his face as far away from me as he could. 

I called Dad collect from the kitchen wall 
phone. I told him I had arrived and would keep 
him posted and returned to my brother's side. I 
thought about calling an ambulance and forcing 
Charles to go, but I knew he would likely deliber- 
ately roll off the stretcher in an effort to resist. 
Droves of people filed by, stopping to speak to him 
or pray. These people were "believers" from many 
different states. They were here to pay homage to 
one of their own. I draped my body over his arm 
for fear someone might step on it. 

A big woman about sixty in a pink-flowered, 
shoe-length dress with a bouncy ruffle at the tail 
tapped my shoulder, motioning me to follow her 



Portrait of Anna Prince • 111 



into the adjoining bathroom. She proudly handed 
me photographs of snake-bite victims, arms and 
hands bloated by venom! She seemed as proud as 
if they were pictures of her grandchildren! I no- 
ticed there were no pictures of her and wondered 
if she just enjoyed the misery of others. Laughing 
and chattering she said, "We sat up all night with 
one man, thinking he was asleep. The next morn- 
ing he was dead! Imagine sittin' all night with a 
dead man and we didn't even know it!" She laughed 
out loud! Sickened, I returned to my brother's side. 
A camera flash drew my attention to the right as 
the woman added Charles and me to her photo- 
graph collection. 

Thirty-two hours had passed and he had not 
slept. The pain was intense. His breath came short 
and raspy, but I still hoped and prayed for a miracle. 
I had tended eight snake-bite victims and all had 
survived. But they had not drunk a pint of strych- 
nine! 

I wanted to gather him up in my arms and run 
with him, back to our childhood to wade streams, 
giggling, back to long summer evenings playing 
hide-and-seek, catching fireflies, sharing our se- 
crets. Instead, I wept beside him, admiring his 
strength to live or die for what he believed to be 
true. I chanted for him, the words he could hardly 
say anymore, "Mercy, Lord, have mercy, Lord." 

Lying face down on the carpet, I searched for 
a reason for the madness, the pain — an answer to 
why we were lying there on the floor of strangers, 
in a different state, begging God for mercy. Memo- 
ries of scenes and faces from a different time and 
place came vividly to my brain. I thought back to 
when I was two years, nine months old. Someone 
took Harley, my brother, two years older than I, 
and me to a friend's house to spend the day. When 



I was brought back home, Mama, a short, dark- 
haired pretty woman, was lying on the bed in the 
living room, covered up. There were women mov- 
ing around, and Mama called me and smiled as she 
uncovered a little baby beside her on the bed. The 
date was February 26, 1938, and would be remem- 
bered as Charles's birthday. 

When Charles was able to sit up and I had 
passed my third birthday, I got the whooping cough 
real bad. Harley and Charles got it too, but they 
said I had it the worst. I puked a lot and thought I 
was going to smother to death. They said I coughed 
till I burst a blood vessel in my eye. I remember 
hearing the grown-ups say the neighbors were 
threatening to have Daddy sent to jail for not tak- 
ing me to a doctor. But Mama just wrote to Granny 
(Daddy's mother in Tennessee) to pray for me. 

Daddy prayed every morning in the toilet be- 
hind the house. He was trying to get something 
from Jesus. He and Mama liked Jesus a lot. I was 
afraid of Jesus. One morning, about daylight, Daddy 
got what he was praying for and came running 
from the toilet, around and around the house. He 
was real happy and jumped and laughed and talked 
strange. We couldn't understand him. The milk- 
man arrived with the morning milk, and he 
couldn't understand him either. Hours later Daddy 
started talking regular again and said he had been 
speaking in tongues, that he had got the Holy 
Ghost, and that Jesus had called him to preach the 
gospel. 

Now that Daddy was called to preach, he or- 
dered a Bible and guitar from Sears. I was five years 
old the day they arrived. Daddy was sitting in the 
door of one of Mr. Lowery's rental houses (we would 
eventually live in all four) in Gaston County, North 
Carolina. 



112 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Baptism in Georgia 
by Ulysses Prince. 
Photograph 1947 
courtesy of Anna 
Prince. 




Daddy, a tall, dark-haired, handsome man of 
thirty, tunes up his new guitar and begins to sing, 
"What would you give in exchange for your soul." 
He sang loudly, "What would you give" — I walked 
up to his knee and sang, 'In exchange. . . ." 

Amazed and pleased, he realized for the first 
time that I could sing. He saw promise for his min- 
istry: he had a Bible, a guitar, and a new tenor 
singer. He didn't have to go it alone. Now he needed 
somewhere to preach. 

The following Saturday, Daddy and I made our 
debut on the sidewalk of Gastonia where preach- 
ers without churches often lined up "to preach the 
word." We sang our only song, and Daddy preached 
his first public service. 

Our street preaching and singing became a way 
of life until I was seventeen! Daddy and I would be 
on some street corner most every Saturday except 
in the dead of winter, and sometimes we preached 



and sang in blowing snow! We reached thousands 
throughout the Southeast on radio broadcasts, street 
corners, in tents, brush arbors, at home prayer meet- 
ings and a few churches that would let us in. 

My restless father changed houses a lot. Even 
if the houses were identical and side-by-side, we'd 
move to the next one and then to the next. We 
lived in a tent three times before I turned sixteen 
and moved twenty-four times. Daddy always moved 
and Mama always had babies. They were almost 
always boys, five boys — the youngest was born in a 
tent. My only sister was born when I was fourteen. 

We had no radio or television or even elec- 
tricity. Our light was a kerosene lamp, and our 
heat was a coal heater in the living room. The 
Harrises, another couple about thirty years old, the 
same age as my parents, came to our house two or 
three evenings a week to pray. The four grownups, 
who had all come from Baptist backgrounds, along 



Portrait of Amw Prince * 113 



M 




The Prince children, who lived in a tent while their 
father, Ulysses, was building a block church in 
Turtletown, Tennessee. (Anna, eleven, holds five- 
month-old brother). Photograph 1946 courtesy of 
Anna Prince. 



with their children got on their knees and prayed 
for hours for God to show them miracles and signs 
that He was hearing their prayers. 

One night Les Harris began to dance and 
shout in the spirit. Daddy was speaking in tongues 
and Mama and Pauline Harris were clapping their 
hands and praising God. Someone accidentally 
knocked the kerosene lamp off the fire hoard! The 
lamp globe shattered, and the kerosene ignited on 
the wood floor. Les got down on his knees and be- 



gan dancing in the flames and pieces of glass. He 
ran his hands through the flames as he got in the 
middle of the hottest part. He was not catching on 
fire and he was happy. He was having a good time. 
Mama joined Les in the flames and ran her fingers 
all through the fire. She played in the fire, and it 
did not even catch her dress tail on fire. Daddy and 
Pauline watched in amazement as their mates 
handled fire for the first time. The flames died out 
as soon as the kerosene was burned up, but the 
wood floor never burned. There were no blisters 
on Les and Mama's hands, nor were Les's knees cut 
where he had danced on the broken glass. Mama 
and Les had discovered they had the gift of 
miracles to handle fire and not be burned, if the 
spirit anointing was present. 

From then on if a heater was present and in 
use during prayer meetings, it was common for my 
mother to open the door of the heater and shovel 
up the hot coals and hold them until they became 
cool, gray cinders, and Les Harris to press his face 
against the red-hot stove pipe. 

My parents were like many other southern tra- 
ditional Baptists in dire need after the Depression 
who exercised the one element they knew would 
work, their faith in Jesus. Their prayer vigils and 
meetings, their speaking in tongues brought the 
exciting belief that Jesus was visiting His people 
and giving them the gift of miracles as He had the 
disciples. 

When I was seven, we moved to East Tennes- 
see, near Copperhill, where our English Prince 
ancestors had settled in 1840. My paternal grand- 
father had been a medical doctor and judge there. 
I was born on Prince Mountain, the very same land 
where my grandfather had been born and which 
he was later to own. We had moved back home. 



114 9 Serpent-Handling Believers 



One day while eating dinner, Charles, four 
years old, reached up on the table and got a pod of 
Daddy's red hot pepper, perhaps by accident, be- 
cause it looked so pretty. He stuck the small pod 
in his mouth and began to chew! I screamed at 
him, "Spit it out Tachi! It'll burn you!" (Tachi 
started as the baby name I called him because I 
couldn't say Charles.) But Charles didn't spit it 
out; he just kept chewing and big tears started roll- 
ing down his face. He wouldn't spit it out. He'd 
got the attention of everyone and he was not 
about to lose it. My brother Harley teased him, 
"You don't want any more, do you?" Charles just 
reached his little fat hand out, got him another red 
pod, put it in his mouth, and started to chew. We 
began to realize how determined little Tachi was 
and that he had an unusual personality. 

When I was eight, we moved back to Gaston 
County, North Carolina. Mama worked night shift 
in a cotton mill and was sleeping days, so we had a 
lot of freedom to prowl. One day Charles, five, and 
my brother Don, three, went down the road; and 
before we noticed they were gone, I looked down 
the road and here came Charles dragging a big, 
dead black snake, and little Don tagging along be- 
hind it. They had bashed its head and brought it 
home. 

Daddy handled his first snake when I was nine 
years old. We were living at the place of the china- 
berry tree, three miles from where Charles was 
born, near Charlotte. (The chinaberry tree was a 
great climbing tree that grew in the yard.) Daddy 
heard that snake handlers, the Haley brothers, 
were practicing their faith in the area; so Daddy 
drives to their small church. We went inside and 
sat in the audience. Both Haley brothers had their 



arm in a sling from a snake bite. Still, after preach- 
ing, they handled two copperheads. Suddenly, 
Daddy jumped up from the back bench where we 
were sitting, jumped over the little white picket 
fence around the church podium and grabbed a 
copperhead out of the snake box. He looked happy 
and excited as he held it in the air. We all watched 
in astonishment as Daddy handled his first snake 
the very first time he had ever seen it done. Daddy 
had a strange gleam in his eyes as he drove us 
home. It worried me. 

A few weeks later, Daddy quit his good job as 
supervisor at the cotton mill and made Mama quit 
hers. He sold all our furniture down to the spoons 
and forks. Mama cried over the loss of her Singer 
sewing machine. She wept, "Ulys, how am I going 
to make clothes for these kids?" and he answered, 
"The Lord will provide, Sister Prince." 

He bought an old bread-delivery van; loaded 
clothes and kids, Bible and guitar; and moved us 
two hundred miles west. The last fourteen miles 
were on a bumpy dirt road as we worked our way 
into the southern edge of the Great Smoky Moun- 
tains to Aquone, North Carolina, overlooking 
Nantahala Lake. 

We moved into an empty four-room house with 
no furniture. We laid our clothes on the empty floor. 
We had no dishes or pots, just one old frying pan. 
Mama made a campfire out back while we skinnied 
up an apple tree for some apples. We found an old 
wooden bench and some can lids; so we knelt be- 
fore the bench and ate fried apples from can lids 
with our fingers. We had no spoons or forks. Daddy 
had sold them all. Since we had no beds, that 
night we piled corn shucks in the back room cor- 
ners. We lived this way for several weeks. 



Portrait of Anna Prince • 115 



Daddy worked long enough as a part-time car- 
penter to buy a public address system: two huge 
loudspeakers, which he mounted on a strong plank 
across the van top over the front doors, and a turn- 
table and boom microphone anchored between 
the front seats. As his assistant in training for four 
years, since I was five years old, I was appointed to 
be his sound engineer and to play Gospel records. 

One afternoon, a few days later, Dad and I 
rode up and down the mountain road, speakers 
booming, announcing an upcoming meeting. I 
played the Gospel music softly as he announced 
loudly, "We're having a meeting over at the Hicks 
house on Saturday night. Come on out! If anyone 
finds a big rattlesnake, bring it and we'll handle it 
in Jesus' name. Somebody bring me a big one!" 

The next day, the mailman stopped by and 
told us that they'd found a rattlesnake and were 
bringing it out on Saturday night. Daddy headed 
up the mountain and started fasting. He fasted and 
prayed for three days and nights. We were still liv- 
ing in the house where we were sleeping on the 
shucks, and he gathered us kids around and said, 
"Children, if the Lord don't move, I may not make 
it; but I want you to take care of your mother." 
Mama was crying, "Ulys, do you have to do this? 
Ulys, do you have to handle this snake? What if it 
bites you and kills you? What are me and these 
kids going to do? They're all just little. I'm up here 
and I can't drive, ain't got no way to get nowhere. 
We've got no way to get something to eat. Ulys, 
do you have to do this?" He said, "Sister Prince, 
I've got to do it." So we were quiet that day because 
we were thinking, "What will we do if Daddy dies?" 

So we went out to Edgar Hicks's house for 
Daddy's first serpent-handling meeting. It was just 



a little wood house up on the mountainside. The 
people came from far and near because Daddy had 
advertised another day or two on his loudspeakers. 

We arrived and squeezed into the tiny living 
room. It was very crowded. The people were stand- 
ing on the back porch, front porch, and at the win- 
dows. Outside in the yard, I saw two men kneeling 
over a twelve-by-eighteen-foot wooden dynamite 
box with a screen wire across the top. They had 
brought the rattlesnake. The men were blowing 
smoke in on the snake and poking it with sticks. 
"Let's make it mean," they said; "watch it strike 
this stick." Mama looked at me, and we headed 
into a little back storage room to pray, hard! 

All while Daddy's preaching, we're out there 
just a-prayin' up a storm. We don't want to see him 
handle no snake. Then we heard the dipper fall off 
the shelf and the water bucket go bang, bang, roll- 
ing down the hill. We came out of this little room, 
and people were just falling over backwards, tum- 
bling over each other, getting out of there. And 
we knew that Daddy was handling the snake. Men 
and women were climbing out of the windows, 
pushing through the doors, anyway they could, to 
get out of that house. They had seen all they 
wanted to see and were trying to give the preacher 
and his rattlesnake some room. A woman named 
Mag Wilson told me that when he pulled the 
snake out that it was just as calm as it could be. 
He held the gentle serpent up in the name of Jesus. 

Mama and I went behind the house around 
the back after the men had their snake back. They 
were poking the snake again, and Mama and I 
heard the young man say to the mailman, "Let's 
make it mad again and take it back in there, and 
make it bite him and kill him." That made my 



J J 6 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Mama real angry, and she turned around to them 
and said, "You saw him risk his life in the name of 
Jesus. You evil unbelievers! You wouldn't believe 
it if he raised your grandmother out of the grave." 
They got real quiet and just picked up the box and 
walked out into the dark. The young man who 
wanted to see the snake kill Dad was a healthy- 
looking young man, but he took a fast-eating can- 
cer and in six months he was dead. We always 
wondered if maybe that's why he died. 

Daddy built near our house a little place for 
open-air services with sawmill slab benches. He 
used his loudspeaker and advertised for people to 
come out. They came, some to join us, some to 
heckle us. Several young women and girls screamed 
and called us "holy rollers" and "snake handlers" 
and yelled, "You wouldn't know the Bible if you 
saw it." They yelled until it was almost impossible 
to preach, but he had the loudspeaker so he could 
talk loudest. They didn't bother Daddy that much, 
but they bothered me an awful lot. 

Soon I had to go to school with those girls. I 
was nine years old; and when I began the new 
school, the kids would torment me relentlessly. My 
brothers didn't seem to pay much attention to the 
persecution, but I would try to defend the Bible 
and tell them it says in Mark 16, "they shall take 
up serpents. And if they drink any deadly thing, it 
shall not hurt them." 

The children would then come with notes 
from their parents and argue, "My mother told me 
to read this to ya." At lunch time they'd gather 
around me and read the notes: "Well, how do you 
explain this scripture, such and such?" A certain 
crowd of girls would start the arguments at lunch, 
but the boys would lie in wait for me behind doors 
and under steps, jump out, hit me hard and run. I 



had to go to school fighting. I fought all day and 
left fighting. 

When neighbors realized we had no furniture, 
they told us about an abandoned house that was 
fully furnished up in the cove nearby. A Mr. Yonce 
had unexpectedly died about ten years previous, 
and his grieving widow had refused to reenter the 
house. The house had been vacant since. 

We gladly moved into the rent-free house. We 
actually had almost nothing to move, just packed 
up our clothes and went. It was an eerie feeling as 
we entered the old house for the first time. The 
Yonces had been eating dinner when he died, so 
dried food was still on the plates and bowls. We 
took the plates to the nearby creek, scraped and 
washed them. Now we all had a plate apiece and 
lots of spoons and forks. 

The house was big and rambling with plenty 
of soft feather beds and fluffy pillows. A huge 
bookcase was filled with books like Tarzan of the 
Apes and Zane Grey westerns. I was ecstatically 
happy because I loved to read! I've read at least 
thirty-five books a year since that time. 

Mama was very pleased with the fully fur- 
nished kitchen. She had everything she needed to 
make us a home. I prayed that Daddy would not 
move us away from this big delicious house, the 
best we'd ever had. We settled into a good and 
easy life, catching lightning bugs, playing hide- 
and-seek, and laughing a lot. My brothers never 
tired of my nighttime songs about little children 
lost or dying and the ghost and panther tales. 

On one occasion when several of us kids were 
picking blackberries up on the mountain for Mama 
to can, Charles got sick and Mama thought maybe 
he had eaten a poisonous spider while eating 
unwashed berries. Charles got worse and lapsed 



Portrait of Anna Prince • 117 



into a coma with a high fever. Days and nights 
passed, but Charles did not wake up. Mom and 
Dad just walked around, in a daze, praying as they 
went. But they didn't take him to the doctor. Even 
though Daddy's father had been a medical doctor, 
Daddy's new faith demanded of him that he not 
take medicine; and he demanded it of his wife and 
children. We needed a miracle, fast. Daddy loaded 
us and started going from prayer place to prayer 
place, having people to pray for Charles. Charles 
told me later that he had awakened while the 
people were standing around him, laying hands on 
him and praying. 

Even after Charles regained consciousness, he 
was still having diarrhea; and Mama kept asking 
Daddy, "Let's buy him some Pepto Bismol." Daddy 
said, "No, Sister Prince, we're not using any medi- 
cine; we don't use medicine." But Mama begged, 
"Please, Ulys, it won't hurt him; it's made out of 
herbs. Just give him one teaspoon full. He's just 
wasting away; we've got to do something so he'll 
keep some food on his stomach." So Daddy finally 
turned his head and let Mama give Charles a dose. 
Charles always said that the Pepto Bismol did him 
no good, that it was the prayer. He defended that 
all his life. 

Soon after my tenth birthday Daddy an- 
nounced we were moving. He had borrowed five 
hundred dollars from Granny and bought six acres 
of land, four miles away, where he planned even- 
tually to build a house. In the meantime, we 
moved into the eighteen-by-twenty-four-foot gos- 
pel tent. We'd spent a few weeks in the tent three 
years earlier — between houses — with our furniture 
set on a dirt floor. But this time we would face a 
bitter winter with twelve-inch snowstorms and 
winds gusting over fifty miles an hour at three- 



thousand-feet elevation on the edge of the Smoky 
Mountains. 

We built a wood slab floor and frame, then 
roughly partitioned off three rooms. I worked 
alongside Daddy and the boys. I was always treated 
the same as the boys and never cut any slack be- 
cause of being a girl. With three old beds, a wood 
heater, a wood cook stove, and a homemade table 
and benches, we moved into the tent. 

As soon as we got settled in, Daddy went into 
the mountains and caught two large rattlesnakes 
and placed them in a dynamite box with a hinged, 
screened lid. Without explanation he slid the 
snakes under my bed. I dared not ask him to re- 
move them, even though he knew I was terrified. 
The boys paid them little attention. I had horrify- 
ing nightmares and would for years dream of 
being surrounded by snakes and running all night 
through endless snakes, unable to escape. The 
next morning Daddy checked his snakes and one 
was missing. We'd slept in a room with a loose rat- 
tler. Each night I feared it might be under the cov- 
ers and bite me or my brothers while we slept. 
Daddy made the box more secure. The other snake 
spent the long winter under my bed, rattling me 
to sleep. 

Daddy's greatest desire was to find God's per- 
fect will for him. The Bible was Daddy's whole life, 
and he expected his family to have the same goals 
as himself. He prayed and fasted often, once even 
forty days. He got so thin he had to tie his pants 
up with strings to keep them from falling off. He 
read the Bible and prayed hours each day. We 
would be awakened sometimes at two A.M. by his 
groaning prayers. There he'd be, wrapped in a 
quilt, seeking God in the dead of the cold night. 
He was driven to take the word of Cod to the 



118 • Serpent-Handling Believers 






J 



,,#■ 




Anna Prince (on the left) with her mother, Delia; father, Ulysses; and brothers (three-year-old Charles is squeezed 
between father and older brother). Photograph 1942 courtesy of Anna Prince. 



poor, and to risk his life to prove with miracles, 
signs, and wonders that Jesus was real and alive. 

Early on Daddy refused offerings of money; but 
as he realized, we would suffer greatly without it, 
and he accepted the meager amounts. He never, 
however, took up an offering, even though he of- 
ten spent his last dollar for car gas and headed out 
with us to places unknown. Somehow we got back 
home, eventually. 

Daddy heard of people in West Virginia who 
were drinking poison, following St. Mark 16: "If 



they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them." 
So he went to the store to buy some poison, and 
the only kind they had was Red Devil Lye that was 
used for unclogging drainpipes. He took it home 
to test it. 

He mixed one teaspoon to a pint of water, shook 
it, and took a sip. He jumped and spat as it ate a 
hole in the tip of his tongue. Then he climbed the 
mountain with a blanket and fasted for a week. On 
his return he once again tasted the deadly mixture, 
and it was as sweet as sugar to him. He had Mama 



Portrait of Anna Prince • N 9 



and my brother Harley try it to make sure it had 
not lost its power! 

They danced around the floor and spat the 
fiery liquid out. Daddy knew he had the victory 
from God to drink lye. From then on he added lye 
drinking to his preaching and carried a pint of it 
in a canning jar along with his snake box. Occa- 
sionally an unbeliever dared him to let them sip 
his potion. They usually ran yelling and spitting 
to their car and never returned. The lye even ate 
the paint off the table where it set. He mixed it so 
strong, he often had to stand on his Bible, liter- 
ally, for the poison to go down his throat. He was 
never harmed. 

Daddy tried to handle stinging scorpions only 
once. He had read in the Bible: "I give you power 
to tread on serpents and scorpions . . . and noth- 
ing shall by any means hurt you." One night he 
brought in a big jar of about ten scorpions. While 
preaching in the pulpit with the people watching, 
he opened the jar. The scorpions scurried up his 
arm and down his shirt collar and into his clothes. 
He began dancing around and ran from the church, 
unfastening his shirt as he went. He never attempted 
scorpions again. We all laughed for weeks over 
that — all except Daddy. 

During life in the tent, Daddy began to peak 
in religious fervor. He wanted to preach the gos- 
pel to every creature. Most every Saturday he and 
I traveled to neighboring towns and preached on 
the streets. At night we returned home to get 
Mama and the boys to attend a scheduled home 
prayer meeting or a revival. At times we had a ra- 
dio broadcast. From April through September we 
were in full-time ministry. 

Snakes, lye drinking, and fire handling were 
only a small portion of our religion, which few 



members practiced at all. Ninety-eight percent of 
our faith was table blessings, hour-long prayers at 
bedtime and for the sick, as well as living a clean 
life. We didn't smoke, drink, even drink coffee, 
wear jewelry, or go to movies. Anything Daddy 
even imagined might be a sin, we stopped doing 
immediately. We had clean language without even 
slang words like heck or darn. The women wore 
long dresses with sleeves, no makeup, and long 
hair. We strove to be clean, truthful, honest, and 
sincere. 

At age nine, I began having playhouse prayer 
meetings with little girls in our prayer group. We'd 
sing, testify and shout a little. One day during a 
great meeting in progress in the woods behind our 
home, Charles, now seven, approached carrying a 
white, lidded bucket, followed by our brothers 
Don, five, and Daniel, three. Charles asked that 
they be allowed to join our meeting. I said okay. 
We continued laying on hands and quoting Bible 
verses. Suddenly Charles yells, "Thank you Jesus!" 
as he opens his bucket and lets out a squirming big 
brown toad frog! He waves the frog in Jesus' name 
and passes it to Don, who in trying to keep the frog 
from getting away squeezed it a bit too hard. A 
stream of liquid wets the back of Don's left hand! 
"He's got warts for sure!" Charles excitedly an- 
nounces, "Gather 'round, Saints; let's pray hard. 
The frog has peed on Brother Don!" 

Daddy and I continued as a team with new 
songs, new sermons in lots of towns and states. I 
helped him pray for the sick and stood beside him 
at funerals. I watched him try "Elijah's God" on a 
totally blind woman. She was reading her Bible in 
forty minutes. I watched him pull a complete 
stranger from her wheelchair and demand her to 
"walk in Jesus' name." She walked. I've hung onto 



120 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



my car seat as he spun in the road to chase down 
another preacher in order to have a heated Bible 
discussion beside the road. 

Daddy and I would go street preaching most 
every Saturday to many small towns in the tri-state 
area of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. 
We continued to use loudspeakers, although they 
were against the law in some places, and to preach 
in up to five towns a day and some days be in three 
states. Mom and the other children only went to 
night services usually because of its being too 
much traveling for them. 

One Saturday we stopped to preach in Bryson 
City, North Carolina, a small riverside mountain 
town. I played the guitar and sang two songs, and 
Dad began to preach over the loudspeakers. A small 
crowd gathered on the sidewalk to listen. 

Two big policemen walked up the street to- 
ward us and asked Daddy to turn off his loudspeak- 
ers, that it was against the law. Daddy replied, 
"Brothers, you're in the quietest world you'll ever 
be in. I obey the laws of God. God tells me to 
preach the Gospel to every creature." The officers 
grabbed Daddy by the belt and shoulder and 
quickly walked him down the street toward the 
courthouse. A crowd of witnesses followed, yelling 
for the policemen to let him go. I was left alone 
standing on the street, crying my heart out. Daddy 
was gone. I was ten years old and didn't know how 
to get home to Mama. I didn't even know where 
we were. I ran down the street following the crowd 
who were following Daddy. We went into the 
courthouse basement to see the mayor. The people 
yelled, "You let that preacher go or we'll throw you 
into the river!" The mayor told Daddy never to use 
his speakers again and turned him loose. We went 



home, but Daddy and I would return again and 
again and use the speakers, but he was never ar- 
rested there again. 

As soon as it was warm enough, Daddy gave a 
revival near Turtletown, seventy miles away. Since 
there was no church, we built a brush arbor by cut- 
ting the tops out of four corner trees in a wooded 
area, then cutting down all the trees inside the 
square. Poles were nailed across the top and brush 
tossed on top for a temporary shelter. Benches 
were sawmill slabs, and the floor was covered with 
wood shavings and sawdust. The loudspeakers were 
operated from the car battery because we had no 
electricity. Lanterns and torches were our only 
light. 

Daddy brought in his snake box and set it un- 
der a front bench. He was keeping two or three 
rattlesnakes or copperheads himself, and often a 
new snake would be presented to him to handle 
while he was preaching. Cars parked a mile in two 
directions on the remote mountain road to hear 
him preach, see him handle snakes, and occasion- 
ally drink lye. 

Many nights throughout the years after a 
meeting we headed for a nearby river for a mid- 
night baptizing of new converts, even during icy 
winters. Most summers we had a radio broadcast; 
and as his fame increased, he baptized hundreds. 
Many, however, still condemned and criticized his 
actions. 

Life constantly changed for us with new places 
and faces. During revivals we spent over one hun- 
dred nights a year in the homes of strangers; and 
since there were so many of us, our family would 
be spread out with different folks. I usually went 
home with a girl my age. It was scary, being driven 



Portrait of Anna Prince • 121 



in the night to unknown places with strangers I'd 
just met. I usually didn't even know where the rest 
of my family was and often cried myself to sleep. 

Many nights the serpents were not handled, 
nor lye or fire brought out, but we were avid seek- 
ers of the Spiritual anointing that was present 
sometimes, making miracles possible. When it was 
not present, the people tried to "pray it down." 
When it came, anyone could see the results. Old 
timers began patting their feet. Women began 
trotting their babies on their laps. Young people 
would begin to laugh and cry at the same time and 
praise God. Even small children would suddenly 
stand up and say how much they loved Jesus! 

When the anointing came, the music got 
faster and the songs had more meaning. Everyone 
seemed to be able to sing in tune and look at each 
other and smile and hug! Daddy would begin to 
preach. The people cheered him on, and the words 
flowed from him like a river making profound 
sense. When the anointing was present, the people 
became electrified and anything could happen. 

One night while the spirit was moving, Daddy 
was handling a long yellow rattler when a twelve- 
year-old boy came running from the back of the 
brush arbor, took the snake from him, and danced 
with it. A teenage girl, who was singing, took it 
from the boy; then her girlfriend took it from her 
and wrapped it around her waist like a belt. They 
had never handled a snake before and likely would 
never handle another, but the anointing was there 
and they knew they were safe from harm. Then 
the fire handlers took out their torches and danced 
as the flames lapped under their arms. Their 
clothes would not even burn. Then Daddy opened 
his jar of lye and drank a few swallows in Jesus' 



name. Dad did everything in Jesus' name! He al- 
ways said, "The power is in the name of Jesus, not 
in me." 

On a night like that one, visiting Baptists and 
Methodists sometimes became snake and fire han- 
dlers. Curious visitors often became participants in 
miracles — when the anointing was present. The 
crowds came early and stayed late! Sometimes the 
services lasted till sunup, while converts prayed at 
the altar for salvation or for miracles from God. 

During the Turtletown brush-arbor revival, a 
farmer brought a box containing a three-foot yellow 
rattler that had tried to bite his dog. The service 
lacked religious fervor, although the slab benches 
and every available log and stump were loaded with 
people waiting impatiently for Daddy to handle the 
new snake. After preaching an anointed message, he 
released the snake from a small barrel and lifted it 
up. The snake coiled to the right and struck the 
top of his left hand at the base of his middle finger. 
The blood ran off his hand as he put the snake 
back into the barrel. Farmers in overalls took out 
their pocket watches and began to count minutes 
until he died. He continued the service with all 
eyes upon him. Two hours passed, and his hand 
did not swell at all. The following night the crowd 
doubled since word spread that the snake handler had 
been bitten. Dad presented his bitten hand to any- 
one who wanted to inspect it. The fang marks 
showed clearly. Some said it was a miracle; some 
said it was a trick; but many became believers. 

Daddy began to be daring and bold. He put 
snakes in his white shirt that stuck their heads out 
while he preached, and he wrapped serpents 
around his neck and head as he danced and yelled, 
"Bring me a lion and I'll ride it!" 



J 22 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



The Madisonville Sheriffs Department sent 
Daddy a message that snake handling would not 
he tolerated in the county. They assured him they 
would he watching. Sure enough, when we went 
and the service began, three deputies arrived to 
catch Daddy handling snakes. Daddy preached 
and as usual handled the serpents fully in the sight 
of everyone. As soon as the snakes were re-boxed, 
the deputies informed Daddy that when the ser- 
vice was finished they would confiscate the snakes 
and arrest him. Meanwhile, they instructed him to 
lock the snake box in the trunk of his car, parked 
beside the makeshift podium, so that they could 
watch until the service was finished. One of the 
deputies propped his foot on the bumper of our car 
to guard the snakes while the service continued. 

I realized Dad was in trouble and needed help. 
He was going to be arrested and the snakes were 
the proof of his crime. I found Harley and we 
quickly devised a plan to steal the snakes even 
though our car was right beside the podium in an 
area with a string of electric lights. Harley and I 
watched for a chance to duck in front of the car 
and scoot under it. We waited for a distraction, 
then Harley gently opened the passenger-side 
front door and slid into the back floorboard. He 
began removing the rear car seat to get at the 
snake box. 1 lay on my back on the ground just 
inches away from the deputy's grounded foot and 
wondered what the penalty was for stealing court 
evidence. One deputy walked around the car and 
shone his light and we froze. After many breath- 
less minutes, he moved on. Then I felt the car door 
begin to open, and I moved under the door, hands 
up to the crack of the door hoping Harley had suc- 
ceeded. It always frightened me to carry the snake 
box, but I carefully took the box Harley slid down 



to me. I scooted my feet along the ground and 
then ran into the dark woods in back, covered the 
box with leaves, and returned to Harley. We 
smiled to each other and waited. When the meet- 
ing was dismissed, the two deputies placed Daddy 
under arrest and had him open his car trunk. 
Daddy was as surprised as anyone to find the trunk 
empty! Daddy was taken to jail and spent three 
days, but when the hearing came up, the judge 
asked for evidence. The deputies reluctantly ex- 
plained that the snakes actually disappeared while 
they were being guarded. The charges were dis- 
missed. 

When I was eleven years old and we were hav- 
ing one of our biggest brush-arbor revivals on a 
hack road near Atlanta, a strange man rolled a 
wooden barrel across the sawdust floor to Daddy's 
feet while he was preaching. Knowing it held a 
new snake of some kind, Daddy ripped open the 
nailed-down top. The biggest black diamond rat- 
tler any of us had ever seen leaped several feet into 
the air. With both hands Daddy wrapped his fingers 
around the snake's baseball-sized middle as it 
whipped its body back and forth. I watched frozen 
with awe as man and serpent battled. Daddy 
wrestled the huge, lunging snake as women 
grabbed their babies and stunned onlookers fell 
backward over slab benches to give the pair more 
space. The snake finally calmed down, and Daddy 
returned its heavy body to the barrel. 

A few nights after that incident, the anoint- 
ing was not going well. I prayed he would not 
handle any serpents. Things didn't feel right. A 
group of strange men were mocking and heckling 
from the hack of the arbor. It was hard to sing or 
preach. A visiting Tennessee handler had brought 
in a three-foot black diamond that had already bit- 



Portrait of Anna Prince • 123 




Anna Prince, daughter 
of Ulysses Prince and 
sister of Charles 
Prince. Photograph 
1982 courtesy of 
Anna Prince. 



ten a woman a few days earlier. The visitor re- 
moved the big snake from the box, but the angry 
reptile struck at him, and he dropped it to the 
ground. The snake crawled toward the spectators. 
Daddy had no choice but to try to put it back in 
the box. The snake suddenly struck the pulse of 



Daddy's left wrist, sinking its fangs so deeply that 
it had to wiggle its head to get them out. 

Stunned, he placed the snake back into the 
box, locked it, and walked a few steps and fell to 
the sawdust. Within minutes, his face was swollen 
almost beyond recognition. Weeping believers 



1 24 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



meekly suggested medical treatment, but he firmly 
shook his head, "No!" My seven-months-pregnant 
mother ran hysterically outside and dropped to the 
rough ground. She rolled back and forth and 
would not let me comfort her. I pressed next to her 
and rolled with her. 

The third day after hovering between life and 
death, Daddy revived and asked to be driven to the 
meeting at the arbor. His arm was still so swollen 
it would not fit into a shirt sleeve. With his good 
hand, he handled the snake that bit and almost 
killed him. 

With one arm he drove us back to the moun- 
tains and our home. The snake box went back un- 
der my bed where it remained all winter. Mama 
soon gave birth in the tent to her fifth son, eleven 
pounds, four ounces, with no medication and only 
a midwife to assist her. It was as common to hear 
the snakes rattle as to hear my new baby brother 
cry. 

Numerous adventures happened during the 
next few revivals. Brother Luther Williams was 
bitten by a copperhead, but with prayer survived; 
one brother, who often put his face in the snake 
box to show he had no fear, was severely bitten 
and maimed; Aunt Donnie's arm swelled real big 
from the fangs of a black diamond rattler; a nine- 
year-old girl died of carbon monoxide poisoning 
and we prayed her back to life; a devil-possessed 
man ran through the brush-arbor on hands and 
knees screaming about Jesus (he finally died in an 
insane asylum); and Charles bit a lizard's head off 
just to prove he could do it. 

My searching mind focused briefly on these 
and other childhood scenes, looking for the an- 
swers I sought for Charles and me. I found many. I 
raised my face from the carpet and back to the re- 



ality that my brother might be dying. Two men 
lifted Charles to a half-sitting position as I, think- 
ing Charles had to vomit, grabbed a nearby bucket 
to hold under his chin. Blood gushed out like an 
open water valve. He was hemorrhaging to death. 

I ran to the kitchen wall phone, stretched the 
cord out the door to the porch, and quickly dialed 
my father in Georgia. Carl Reed was beside me in 
a flash. He leaned heavily against the porch banis- 
ter, murmuring repeatedly, "I thought he'd be 
alright! I thought the Lord would heal Brother 
Charles." 

"Daddy," I screamed, "Charles is dying! We're 
losing him." He replied, "I know, Sister, I know. 
I've been praying all night. The Lord just showed 
me a vision that Charles was dying! Your mother 
and me are getting ready to come up and bury our 
son. 

When I returned to Charles's side he was alert, 
but fading. "Charles," I pled once again, "can I get 
you some medical help? Can I get you a doctor? 
Please, Charles." He shook his head a firm "No" 
and turned away. Realizing that I might be the last 
blood relative to see him alive, I felt I had to make 
peace with him for the whole family and help him 
find God's hand to guide him through the valley 
of death. "Is there anything you want me to tell 
anyone?" "Pray, tell them to pray," he replied. We 
prayed together: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall 
not want. ..." A tranquillity settled over his face 
as he whispered, "I think I can rest now." I wept 
for the life that was slipping away and for myself. 
We were both victims of snake handling and poi- 
son drinking! I wept also for the other victims I 
would have to call with the news of his death. 

We took Charles's body for the funeral and 
burial to the Turtletown Church we had built on 



Portrait of Anna Prince • 125 



the grounds where Daddy had handled snakes in 
the brush arbor when we were children. The me- 
dia found us but watched solemnly from a distance 
as Daddy preached Charles's funeral and I sang his 
favorite song, "I Was Born to Love the Lord." 
Charles's seven children, ages seven to twenty- 
four, sat wide-eyed on the front row. I prayed none 
of them would follow in their father's footsteps to 
handle serpents. 

Mom and Dad still grieve for their son. Dad, 
over eighty years old, pastors the Turtletown Church. 
He stopped handling snakes when Charles began 
and tried hard to dissuade his son. But the seed had 
been planted too deep. 

My faith in God and the Bible are strong. 1 
know miracles do happen. I have witnessed many 
dozens. But the greatest miracle of all to me is the 
miracle of hearing the voice of God, the audible 
and clear communication of God. Deeply puzzled 



about Charles's death, I asked God, "Lord, why did 
my brother die? What really happened between 
Charles and you?" So God gave me a dream-type 
vision, an allegory: 

Once a homeowner needed a ten-foot-high brick 
wall built, promptly; so he hired a bricklayer. The 
workman worked hard and his work was smooth 
and accurate! The owner complimented the work- 
manship! Bystanders began to tell the worker 
what a fine wall it was. But the wall was only 
three feet high! The workman, liking the praise, 
stopped working and began to admire his own 
work. He replaced his work clothes with a Rhine- 
stone Cowboy suit and sttutted and pranced in 
front of the wall as admirers gathered, praised, and 
watched. The homeowner, needing his house 
completed quickly, had to let the workman go; 
but he explained, "Just because I let him go 
doesn't necessarily mean he won't be paid for the 
good work he's already done." 




signs 

shall 

follow 



Conclusion 



One common conclusion regarding these people 
and the practice of serpent handling is that the 
people and the ritual itself are simply bizarre and 
irrational; snake handlers are crazy. This opinion is 
generally held by those with only a hearsay knowl- 
edge of the practice, and it is the image sometimes 
expressed or implied in the media. Serpent han- 
dlers are often confronted with this view and are 
repulsed by it. Jimmy Williams's son Allen, whose 
father died from drinking strychnine during a reli- 
gious service, is a case in point: 

Me and my brother and the pastor of this church 
here where I attend was in the Bible shop, and 
this man just come in and was givin' my daddy 
and another man that drunk the poison, just talkin' 
about 'em like they was dogs. 

The same is true for Allen's sister Joyce: 

I was in Revco down here, and it's a pretty big 
store and a lot of people; and there was this man I 
know. I recognized him as soon as I seen him, over 
in the other aisle; but he didn't see me or he 
wouldn't know who I was anyway. He said, "Do 
you rememher that crazy Jimmy Williams that 
drunk that strychnine and died? You remember 
him, don't you?" He said, "They was over there 
workin' on his house the other day, paintin' it"; 
and when he said it, he was talkin' so loud that he 
could be heard, Lord knows how far. I just walked 
up there and I said, "That's my daddy you're 
callin' crazy!" 

Serpent handlers are quick to say, as does Lydia 
Elkins Hollins (whose mother died from a serpent 
bite): "We're not crazy like we're taken for." News- 
papers, magazines, and television programs, how- 
ever, sometimes promulgate this view in order to 
exploit the inherently sensational aspects of the 
practice. One article, for example, prints, "THE 



Conclusion • 127 



GOSPEL OF DEATH," followed by "A BIZARRE 
religious sect praises the Lord by handling poison- 
ous snakes, putting fire on their bodies and drink- 
ing deadly poison"; another article, "Praise the 
Lord — and pass the snakes," uses as its lead: "West 
Virginia believers play with killer rattlers to win 
God's love." One columnist explains, "To most re- 
ligious people, the idea of handling a poisonous 
snake as a demonstration of faith is near incon- 
ceivable if not downright revolting"; another 
writes, "The skeptical and sometimes disgusted 
world calls them 'Holy Rollers' in public and vari- 
ous unprintable things in private." 

Some reported statements, particularly earlier 
ones, are unreservedly direct: "We don't like this 
sort of thing, and we'd like to stop it. . . . some of 
the citizens up here are going to try to get a law 
just like the one in Kentucky." One report says 
that a police captain was under orders of the gov- 
ernor "to crush out the 'dangerous' toying with 
reptiles." Some of this journalism is almost humor- 
ous, but not to the serpent handler, especially such 
terms as "leader of the Holy Roller band," "Snake 
Cultist," and "'Snake' Preacher," or descriptions 
like: "their eyes alight with religious frenzy, 500 
followers . . . staged a near riot on the highway"; 
"Rattlers . . . are being passed about in meeting [sic] 
with as much sangfroid as Mrs. Asterbilt-Jones- 
Smith exhibits in serving tea to her guests"; 
"snakes at the meetings have created quite an ex- 
citement among certain classes"; "SNAKE 
CHURCH . . . An Appalachian sect praises the 
Lord and passes the copperheads"; and '"Holy 
Rollers'. . . are still playing with snakes and allow- 
ing the snakes to bite them in their public meet- 
ings." Some of the accounts sound like bad novels: 
"music of the git-fiddle thrummed through the hot 



Georgia night, setting nerves to throbbing. ... He 
plunged his hands into the box and brought out 
two giant rattlers. . . . Women moaned and reeled. 
In the hot night, the guitars thrummed on." 

Carolyn Porter, wife of a serpent handler, ex- 
presses her reaction to this kind of report: "We've 
had a lot of bad publicity from people that don't 
understand and are only out to put you down, 
make you look like a fool. Most people think we're 
uneducated, ignorant, unlearned and ain't got 
good sense to start with. We have had people 
come in and write stuff, ask you something; and 
then when they print it, you don't even recognize 
you said it." 

This deprecation of serpent handlers is not re- 
stricted to certain reporters and unsophisticated 
respondents. In one personality study, for example, 
a group of clinicians was given diagnostic profiles 
to categorize and sort according to those they 
thought belonged to snake handlers and those to 
conventional church members. They assigned 
most of the profiles they judged abnormal to ser- 
pent handlers when in fact a larger percentage of 
abnormal profiles belonged to the conventional 
group (Tellegen 227-29). Researcher Virginia 
Hine says of another study: "The obvious bias re- 
vealed here is not uncommon. Informal interviews 
with four psycho-therapists about our Pentecostal 
data revealed a remarkable readiness to assume pa- 
thology" (217). The same bias is manifested in the 
following statement from a clinical report in a 
reputable medical journal: "Poisonous snakebites 
are an occupational hazard among professional and 
amateur herpetologists . . . and religious faddists who 
use poisonous snakes as part of their ceremonial re- 
galia" (Parrish and Pollard 277; emphasis added). 

Richard Davis, a professor of religion and phi- 



128 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



losophy, comments perceptively: "We do not, 
however, in the mainstream of America, think of 
spiritual growth and development as our primary 
concern. We are not expecting miraculous powers 
to appear which defy our normal view of the 
world. When those powers appear to us, they 
threaten the civic religion, they threaten the val- 
ues that the society holds in common." 

The Freudian perspective, as expressed by 
Weston La Barre, is that the serpent handler mani- 
fests a religious psychopathic behavior. The ser- 
pent represents the "projected, hysterically unac- 
knowledged, and unadmissible desires" (They Shall 
Take Up Serpents 170), i.e., a projection of the id. 
To the "cultist," the serpent is the Devil, evil in- 
carnate and death-dealing. Evil and good seem to 
be outside the person, though really both are 
within; "The evil, phallic part of oneself is pro- 
jected as the separate and discrete serpent" (170). 
The practice of serpent handling, however, is not 
seen by La Barre as psychologically therapeutic; he 
states that the practice "expresses an un-mastery of 
sexuality on the phallic level" (169). In these 
terms, serpent handling is an overt expression at- 
tempting to reconcile deep personal feelings that 
are repressed by outside forces; but as a result of 
the nature of the outside forces (the view of God 
and the diversionary rather than overt manner of 
reconciling the feelings within), the expression is 
psychologically harmful. 

This view of serpent handling may be derived 
from a symbolic reductionist theory of religion de- 
veloped by Freud in which "the real meaning of 
religion is to be found in the Oedipus complex 
which it symbolically expresses. The Biblical God 
stands for the primordial father toward whom the 
sons feel both rebellious and guilty. Christ sums up 



a whole set of conflicting oedipal wishes. . . . [T]he 
psychologically courageous man will discard the 
religious symbols which cloak his neurosis and face 
his inner problems directly" (Bellah 90-91). In 
many ways the Freudian psychoanalytical ap- 
proach is exclusive rather than inclusive. As Rob- 
ert Bellah suggests, it excludes, for example, reli- 
gious belief "in the ordinary sense of the word" 
because it believes itself to possess "a truth supe- 
rior to that of religion" (91 ). As other critics point 
out, there are limitations in La Barre's evaluations 
other than oversimplification and exclusiveness. 
His conclusions are of a highly inferential nature 
and are based on a single complex theoretical 
perspective; the data he selects for description and 
his direction of analysis are subject to his 
psychoanalytical orientation, and his substantia- 
tion does not include a wide scope of observations 
(Tellegen 222). 

Even if it were accepted that deep-seated 
sexual impulses and associations may be mani- 
fested in serpent handling, those impulses would 
not necessarily be present in every serpent han- 
dler; nor would they explain the total meaning or 
significance of the activity. If, for example, base- 
ball were seen in general to have deep-seated 
Freudian implications, that insight would not nec- 
essarily explain why the game is vital to a particu- 
lar player's life or why it has become the national 
sport of the United States, although the psycho- 
logical associations would certainly suggest the 
complex nature of the game. 

In contrast to La Barre's negative conclusions, 
it is informative to note the psychological evalua- 
tion by Nathan and Louise Gerrard of a group of 
serpent handlers in West Virginia. The Gerrards 
administered the Minnesota Multiphasic Person- 



Conclusion • 1 29 




John Brown, minister from Newport, handling serpents in Baxter. Photograph 1983 by Mike DuBose. 



ality Inventory Test to members of a serpent-han- 
dling church and to a conventional-denomination 
church twenty miles away. One difference observed 
in the two groups was the way the older members 
of both churches responded to illness and old age. 
In the conventional church the older members 
"seemed to dwell morbidly on their physical dis- 
abilities" whereas "the aged serpent-handlers 
seemed able to cheerfully ignore their ailments" 
("Serpent-Handling Religions," Trans-Action 24). 
Although both groups relied on their faith for con- 
solation, the older serpent handlers were appar- 
ently more successful and were "not frightened by 
the prospect of death" (24). Although the young 
people of both groups also tested as "remarkably 
well adjusted" (24), the young serpent handlers 



appeared to have less psychological incompatibil- 
ity with the older members of their church than 
the young people of the conventional church did 
with their elders. Regarding particular traits that 
might predispose an individual to serpent handling, 
rather than pointing to deep-seated Freudian con- 
flicts, the psychometric data from the MMPI 
test suggested traits "more closely related to im- 
pulsivity and emotional expressivity," that is, 
traits related to "'extraversion' rather than to 
'neuroticism'" (Tellegen 241). 

A personality analysis by Susan Gilmore ad- 
dresses the psychological health of Pentecostals in 
general. The Pentecostals she studied who held 
beliefs openly and non-dogmatically (when they 
were compared to college students and other 



J 30 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



groups) appeared "as well-adjusted and interper- 
sonally skillful as do people in general" (164). 
Similarly, Troy Abel's findings in his study of Ho- 
liness Pentecostals in an Appalachian community 
"do not support a psychological deprivation hy- 
pothesis, with its assumption that Holiness-Pente- 
costals, glossolalists, or those who act out [i.e. , dur- 
ing the service run in the aisles, dance, pass out, 
scream, shout, give long testimonies] are psycho- 
logically unsound" (190). In conjunction with 
these analyses, anthropologist Steven Kane's con- 
clusion regarding the psychological health of Pen- 
tecostal Holiness serpent handlers is particularly 
apt: "We are dealing here not with the privately 
constructed, idiosyncratic fantasy and action sys- 
tems of neurotics and self- insulated psychotics, hut 
on the contrary with a vigorous and perduring in- 
stitutionalized system of ritual and belief whose 
symbols are public, socially shared and sanctioned 
(at least within the practicing group), and trans- 
mitted across generational lines. ... In sum, to in- 
terpret dissociative behavior among serpent han- 
dlers as a symptom of psychological abnormality 
would be gross error" ("Ritual Possession" 302). 

Serpent handling is also commonly set forth 
as a particular response to one's environment, a 
form of socioeconomic determinism in which reli- 
gious experiences and practices are responses of 
individuals to social needs. From this point of 
view, serpent handlers — who are seen to come 
from repressed economic areas — live hard, often 
dangerous, demanding existences with little 
to give them hope, recognition, power, or 
self-esteem. The practice of serpent handling 
gives them a sense of community with both the old 
and the young, with males and females. It provides 
them with a means of coping with the realities of 



the present; it demonstrates at least to them that 
they are important, that they have power over ob- 
stacles, that they are supported by temporal as well 
as eternal forces, and that they have a better life 
coming. In the words of Nathan Gerrard, "Reli- 
gious serpent-handling ... is a safety valve for 
many of the frustrations of life in present-day Ap- 
palachia. For the old, the serpent-handling reli- 
gion helps soften the inevitability of poor health, 
illness, and death. For the young, with their poor 
educations and poor hopes of finding sound jobs, 
its promise of holiness is one of the few meaning- 
ful goals in a future dominated by the apparent in- 
evitability of lifelong poverty and idleness" ("Ser- 
pent-Handling Religions," Trans-Action 28). 

J. Kenneth Moore summarizes this position: 
"Sociological research suggests that the Snake 
Handlers are sending a defiant socio-economic 
message in their sermons, testimonials, and songs. 
This message, clothed in double entendre, states 
that though the Snake Handlers may not be eco- 
nomically powerful, they are spiritually powerful. 
This power, derived from God and proven through 
acts of faith, elevates them, they believe, to a po- 
sition superior to those who have not found the 
true way to salvation (society)." Further, Moore 
contends that the congregational singing of ser- 
pent handlers not only makes a statement through 
"implied socio-economic double entendre" ("Eth- 
nic Hymnody" 36) but also reinforces their el- 
evated psychological state. 

There is something to be said for this socio- 
economic point of view, but a number of relative 
factors should also be considered. For one, serpent 
handlers represent a relatively small percentage of 
the people in the area from which they come, and 
if the environment is a determining factor in their 



Conclusion • 131 




Grade McCallister from the Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo, participating in the sen-ices at the Church of Jesus 
Christ, Baxter. Photograph 1985 by Mike DuBose. 



132 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



practice, only a small number are responding to 
the environment in that particular way. In addi- 
tion, even if the deprivation theory has validity, 
its application has limitations. Serpent handling 
originated in rural areas of the South among 
people with little education who shared a low 
socioeconomic status; it is questionable therefore 
whether there was any pervasive awareness of so- 
cial repression among these people at this time. 
Also, serpent handling can be found among rela- 
tively prosperous, even wealthy, individuals and in 
thriving rural communities and other areas, such 
as middle-class industrial centers, where the ste- 
reotypical deprived socioeconomic mold does not 
fit. 

The deprivation concept certainly has its lim- 
its as far as serpent handlers themselves are 
concerned. They resent being viewed as back- 
ward, repressed, deprived people. One group said 
that, after serpent handler Charles Prince had died 
in their home, they "had become so distressed at 
what they were reading in newspapers and hearing 
on radio and seeing on television that they de- 
cided it was time to talk." And they did, to the lo- 
cal newspaper: 

We just want the world to know that Brother 
Charles didn't die in a one-room shack or that he 
was being cared for by a bunch of unlearned, 
backwoodsy, bare-footed people who don't belong 
in the 20th century. As you can see, we have 
electricity. We are college educated. Most of us 
here have been in the coal-mining business. We 
think we're doing all right. The banks do too. 
(Hurley, "A Snake Handler's Death" 1 1 ) 

Regarding both the socioeconomic and the 
Freudian views, it should be stated that the valid- 



ity of a spiritual experience — as either a super- 
natural or a powerful psychic phenomenon — is not 
negated by its fulfilling other psychological needs. 
To show that serpent handling satisfies a number 
of individual as well as social needs does not repu- 
diate in any way its manifestation of a divine or 
psychic event. In other words, the spiritual reality 
of serpent handling and its efficacy are two differ- 
ent considerations. 

It may be noted, however, that psychological 
needs intensified by various states of deprivation, 
such as poverty, isolation, and insecurity, may ef- 
fect powerful spiritual experiences. Richard Davis 
addresses this point: 

As time develops, we have people who feel them- 
selves cut off, who have nowhere to turn for a 
genuine sense of community, turning within 
themselves as individuals; and spontaneously they 
begin to discover real powers of the inner spirit. 
And the manifestation of these inner spiritual 
powers starts to appear — the ability to go into 
trances, and while in a tranced state to handle a 
serpent with perfect safety, the ability to go into a 
trance and to hold one's hand to a hot coal with- 
out any detriment to the skin, the ability to drink 
poison without a response, physiologically, to 
that. These were genuine powers. They are com- 
parable to the powers developed in Indian religion 
by the Hindu yogis. One can't be in the presence 
of that without sensing that something here is real 
and vital. 

It may also be that the numerous adverse experi- 
ences common to many serpent handlers have 
worked as a cohesive as well as a productive force. 
In fact, as one may infer from a statement by theo- 
logian Anton Boisen, deprived conditions may 
well explain the origination of serpent handling in 



Conclusion • / 33 



the South — hut in quite a different manner from 
that expressed in the standard socioeconomic de- 
terministic view: 

It follows that one result of the economic strain is 
to lessen the sense of isolation and to increase the 
sense of social solidarity and thus to induce a state 
of mind favorable to religious experience rather 
than to mental disorder. The fact that people 
suffer together through no particular fault of their 
own leads them, at least in many cases, to seek for 
some common solution, some common hope, and 
to find this in religious faith. (192) 

It would seem that some Pentecostal Holiness 
serpent handlers, as a result of being cut off from 
mainstream society, have tapped other waters that 
have welled up into spiritual strength. 

From a theological point of view, serpent han- 
dlers may he labeled fundamentalists; that is, they 
believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God 
and is to be interpreted literally. The Bible is the 
principal means of God's speaking to His people, 
and believers are responsible for doing whatever 
He says to do. If they follow His commands, they 
will receive God's blessings, God's anointing 
Spirit, God's miraculous power. If God says to sac- 
rifice your son Isaac, you do it trusting God with 
the results; if He says to walk into a fiery furnace 
without fear, you do it. These people read among 
other scriptures in their Bible that Jesus said to his 
disciples that they "shall take up" and "tread on 
serpents" — and they do not have any other choice 
than to believe and act upon what Jesus said. 
Theological historian Richard Humphrey states 
the case pointedly, "The word faith, as they under- 
stand it, incorporates belief and practice. You can't 
separate them or you're a hypocrite. . . . They don't 



do it [handle serpents] to prove their faith, they 
don't do it to demonstrate their faith, they do it 
out of obedience to what they think God has 
called them to do. ... It is a part of their faith, an 
expression of it. ... I think that someone who 
doesn't take the Bible as their faith or as their rule 
of faith and practice would have a hard time un- 
derstanding that." 

This literal position of serpent handlers, how- 
ever, poses a dilemma even for other fundamen- 
talists. There are those who believe in the possi- 
bility of God's power to protect the saints from 
physical harm, to heal them, to stave off death, but 
who look primarily for this power to be mani- 
fested indirectly. These more liberal fundamental- 
ists, consequently, are skeptical when a group, 
particularly when they are perceived as less enlight- 
ened than themselves, profess to experience the 
power of God directly. Even though mainstream 
fundamentalists believe in miracles, many say that 
serpent handlers misinterpret the scriptures and 
that the apparently miraculous experiences have 
naturalistic explanations. 

The view of some contemporary fundamental- 
ist religious leaders on serpent handling may be il- 
lustrated by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, head of 
the late Moral Majority, who said in an interview 
with Fred Brown that he pities those who feel they 
have to take up serpents as a profession of their 
faith and he admonishes them to return to main- 
stream Christianity. "Personally," Falwell says, "I 
feel that the wording of the last verse of the Gos- 
pel of Mark spoke of miraculous happenings that 
would occur in the Apostolic era. ... I think these 
snake handlers are very sincere people, but I think 
they are sincerely wrong. ... I think the snake- 



J 34 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



handling and poison-drinking churches are ahout 
as dangerous to the boys and girls who are watch- 
ing adults' examples as prime-time television is. 
They are both dangerous to the health of America's 
young people." 

Going beyond a limited description of reli- 
gious fundamentalism, theologian Mary Lee 
Daugherty suggests that the ritual holds for the 
participants the significance of a sacrament, a 
physical manifestation of a spiritual reality. The 
ritual, she says, "is at the center of their Christian 
faith"; it is "their way of celebrating life, death, 
and resurrection. Time and again they prove to 
themselves that Jesus has the power to deliver 
them from death here and now." One clue of this 
sacramental nature or symbol of victory over 
death, she says, is to be observed in their funerals, 
where serpents may be handled much "as a Catho- 
lic priest may lift up the host at a mass for the 
dead, indicating belief that in the life and death of 
Jesus there is victory over death" ("Serpent-Han- 
dling as Sacrament" 234). 

Daugherty goes on to say that a principal fea- 
ture of the Appalachian serpent handlers is their 
intense desire for holiness. She suggests that their 
greatest message, however, is not relative to their 
faith in serpent handling, even viewed as a sacra- 
ment. She says that it involves something else: 
"they have faith, hope, and love, but the greatest 
message they have given to me is their love" (238). 

From a somewhat different point of view, ser- 
pent handlers may be said to be achieving an 
epiphany, that is, an intuitive grasp of reality, a 
perception of the essential nature or the meaning 
of themselves, religion, and God. They go to the 
serpent box for truth; and they believe that, not to 
be harmed, they have to be filled with the power 



of God, inspired, fully anointed with divinity. 
Filled with this power, they approach the box fear- 
lessly. They willingly accept whatever they find, 
not just to witness the physical power of God but 
also to experience an epiphany — completely deny- 
ing self to gain direct apprehension of ultimate 
truth. 

Since this kind of insight transcends physical 
phenomena, its validity cannot be verified or re- 
jected by a person who has not shared the experi- 
ence. It is fruitless, therefore, to contest the 
epiphany of serpent handlers or to suggest to them 
optional explanations for their experiences. There 
is generally no adequate response to those whose 
perceptions are based on any altered state of mind 
when they say, "Thou canst not speak of that thou 
dost not feel." 

Serpent handlers are members of a traditional 
community. In appearance, life-style, and values, 
they share a heritage with those with whom they 
grew up. They are not significantly different from 
other folks around them. Their religious beliefs, 
based on the same King James translation read by 
the majority of American Protestants, are essen- 
tially the same as those of others in their commu- 
nities; the exception is not their belief in a particu- 
lar scripture but their interpretation of it. They 
believe that God expects them to persevere re- 
gardless of the opposition of Satan in any form, 
that they must follow the example of Jesus' dis- 
ciples and be willing to be persecuted, even die for 
their Lord, and that they will be rewarded in 
heaven for their fidelity. 

Their religious meetings are not essentially dif- 
ferent from many others in nearby areas, particu- 
larly Pentecostal churches. On occasion they wor- 
ship at the services of other churches that do not 



Conclusion • ] 35 



hold to their interpretation of key scriptures; con- 
versely, other church members who do not accept 
their interpretation attend their meetings, not 
simply as spectators but as worshipers. Even 
preachers who do not believe in handling serpents 
sometimes preach for them. They may extend fel- 
lowship to others less on the basis of Mark 16 than 
on how they are baptized, whether in the name of 
"Jesus," "Lord Jesus," or "the Father, the Son, and 
the Holy Ghost." They seemingly have no more 
or less manifestation of human limitations than 
other folks. Their preachers are no more or less 
susceptible than others to ego, publicity, show- 
manship, hypocrisy, or carnality. 

The traditional beliefs of serpent handlers, 
fused with their religious ones, are also basically 
the same as those of their neighbors. They believe 
in the presence of the supernatural — spirits, 
ghosts, demons — not only stemming from their 
belief in Scripture, but also from what is passed 
down in oral tradition. They believe in codes of 
heroic behavior, proving oneself, accepting chal- 
lenges, demonstrating courage, being fearless, and 
disdaining death. They believe in and identify 
with heroes of song, story, legend, history, war, 
movies, television, and the Bible; one hears re- 
peatedly in their sermons references to being like 
Daniel in the lion's den. From this point of view, 
serpent handling is one particular manifestation of 
traditional religious beliefs and values of personal 
conduct. 

In the end, none of these varying approaches 
to explaining serpent handling is fully satisfactory. 
It is an irrational practice engaged in by religious 
fanatics. It is an expression of psychological needs 
for religion and ritual or, to expand on that view, 
an archetypal experience common to humanity 



and expressed in correlative rituals throughout the 
world. It is a response to socioeconomic forces 
within a particular subculture. It is an act of reli- 
gious fundamentalism reinforced by the evidence 
of divine power in modern times or of extraordi- 
nary natural phenomena effected by a belief in di- 
vine power. It is a zealous quest for spiritual per- 
ception and realization. It is an expression of 
traditional attitudes, values, and practices. 

A better perspective would be to say that ser- 
pent handling, both collectively and individually 
(regardless of any divine nature which would be 
outside empirical assessment), is the eclectic result 
in varying degrees of a number of religious, socio- 
economic, psychological, and traditional factors in 
American culture. 

It is inherently difficult for an outsider to ex- 
perience this unusual religious and cultural expres- 
sion without dehumanizing the participants; ser- 
pent handlers as such are not freaks, they are not 
crazy, they are rational human beings. Especially 
in the handling of poisonous snakes, drinking of 
deadly substances, and divine healing, but in other 
aspects of their lives as well, serpent-handling be- 
lievers evoke a "power" that works for them. There 
is limited controlled data on the effects of that 
power; consequently, in many cases (primarily be- 
cause of the nonclinical circumstances in which it 
is manifested) the observer does not know whether 
the effects are supranatural or only remarkable. 
And, of course, it is not within the realm of sci- 
ence to determine whether the power comes di- 
rectly from God or indirectly from a divine source 
through naturalistic causes or completely from 
natural causes. Presumably, one could determine 
clinically whether solely naturalistic causes pro- 
duce similar effects. The information necessary to 



136 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



arrive at a substantive conclusion of the matter is 
not, however, available due to a number of rea- 
sons. There are understandable limits to experi- 
mentation with human subjects, and there 
are insufficient data relative to such factors as the 
potential extent of neurological control of physi- 
ological functions. 

Regardless, then, of which conclusions one 
comes to, the initial attitude one takes is critical. 
Rather than approach serpent handlers with the 
aim of impugning their power or rationalizing their 
activities, one should seek first whatever truths 
they have to reveal, to learn about the changes 
they effect physiologically, psychologically, spiri- 
tually, and socially. One should try to comprehend 
dispassionately, without any theoretical precon- 
ceptions, the power of their ultimate commitment. 

As with all complex human beings, there is 
much to be learned from serpent handlers, people 
like Liston Pack for example. As a small boy Liston 
was awakened one night by the sound of a high- 
powered rifle and by the body of a man, whom his 
father had just killed, falling across the bed where 
he and his brothers were sleeping. A few years af- 
ter that, still a young boy, he was arrested the first 
time for helping his father run moonshine. Later 
he was involved in almost every illegal activity 
one could imagine; he came close to dying from 
knife wounds on several occasions and once from 
being shot in the head with a riot gun. 

Then Liston was redeemed — if not eternally, 
then certainly to society — and subsequently he be- 
came a hardworking, loving husband and father, a 
minister devoting much of his time and money to 
his calling. Although his life remains rocky, he is 
a man who believes in miracles from personal ex- 
perience, and as a result of his experience he has 



strong religious convictions. For these convictions 
he has gone willingly to jail like Thoreau in an act 
1 of civil disobedience, and if he were as literate as 
Thoreau, he might well quote Hamlet to those 
who seek simple explanations for his complex life: 
"how unworthy a thing you make of me! You 
would play upon me, you would . . . pluck out the 
heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my 
lowest note to the top of my compass. ... do you 
think I am easier to be play'd on than a pipe?" 

There is much light associated with serpent 
handlers: conviction, courage, affirmation, pur- 
pose, forthrightness, regeneration, humility, gen- 
erosity, hope, joy, inner peace, love — "truth," as 
Faulkner says, "all things which touch the heart." 
They believe, and that belief is a powerful force, 
both to them and to those who witness it. There is 
also darkness: extremism, naivete, illiberality, 
simplism, and foolhardiness. 

The same ambivalence surrounds the practice. 
By biblical scholars it is almost universally repudi- 
ated. It endangers people, the mature as well as the 
impressionable. And even though it does not pose 
a "grave and imminent danger" to society, it does 
produce widows, orphans, and grieving relatives. 
For some individuals, however, taking up serpents 
provides meaning and insight into reality. It is an 
ultimate commitment that reinforces belief and 
shapes lives in a way that many other religious ex- 
pressions do not. To serpent-handling believers, 
the ritual is an act of obedience to that which 
gives quality to living, and it is worth dying for. 
To the analyst, serpent handling provides insights 
into the efficacy of belief and perhaps even into 
the operative relationship between neurological 
and physiological responses. 

Although handling serpents is strange from 



Conclusion • 137 



the viewpoint of mainstream Christianity, the 
practice from a traditional perspective is compre- 
hensible. If you take people with their values and 
place them in their particular religious tradition, 
then, even though you may reject the specific 
doctrine, you can understand why they believe it. 
That does not mean you understand everything 
else that may be involved: why these people turn 
ultimately to God; how religion or religious prac- 
tice functions in their social circumstances; why 
they have particular psychological responses, reli- 
gious or otherwise; or how their religious and cul- 
tural traditions have evolved. But, if you are aware 



of their traditions personally or vicariously, you 
can understand their taking up serpents. 

Serpent handling is not simply a socially dan- 
gerous deviant civic practice of a relatively small 
group of people that should be ignored, pejora- 
tively tolerated, viewed as spectacle, or legally ter- 
minated. It is a complex traditional religious be- 
lief of a group of American Christians that should 
be approached respectfully and sensitively — 
avoiding what Nathaniel Hawthorne saw as the 
unforgivable sin, the violation of "the sanctity of a 
human heart." 




Appendix A 

The 
Anointment 



The anointment of the Holy Ghost refers to the 
Spirit of God descending upon, entering, possess- 
ing, filling, baptizing an individual. Sign followers 
generally distinguish, as does Brother Bud Gregg 
of Morristown, Tennessee, the anointment from 
the usual indwelling of the Spirit that character- 
izes believers and causes them to live holy lives: 

A person that has never known God, when they 
repent and they get baptized and they receive the 
Spirit of God in their life, they become a new 
creature according to the word of God in Christ 
Jesus. These people are no longer like they were, 
but they're changed individuals. And that is the 
Spirit of God that changes those people and you 
can see a difference. But when the Spirit of the 
Lord moves upon you — a lot of people calls it the 
anointing of God, which I call it the "anointing" 
a lot of times — but when the Spirit of the Lord 
begins to take control, take complete control of 
your body, he begins to move you around and he 
preaches through you and speaks in tongues 
through you, he begins to shout through you, or 
whatever, something else greater than a man 
begins to take control of a man's body and begins 
to do these things — that's what they call the 
anointing of God. 

The principal scripture concerning the anoint- 
ment is the description in Acts 2 of the disciples 
being filled with the Holy Ghost on the day of 
Pentecost. Other scriptures cited are: "For as many 
as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of 
God" (Rom. 8:14) and "How God anointed Jesus 
of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: 
who went about doing good, and healing all that 
were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him" 
(Acts 10:38). 

Everyone who experiences the anointing of 
the Holy Ghost describes it somewhat differently, 



140 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



but at the same time similarly in many ways. The 
experience of the anointment described by serpent 
handlers transcends literal translation into lan- 
guage, but Anna Prince's description is particularly 
expressive: 

It's a spiritual trancelike strand of power linking 
humans to God; it's a burst of energy that's re- 
freshing, always brand new; it brings on good 
emotions. One is elated, full of joy. You know 
you're right with God, totally in tune with God; 
everything is right with everyone on earth. It's a 
delicious, wonderful feeling going through your 
body; it's a roar of happiness; you want to laugh, 
jump. It's a power surge that is near to a light 
electrical shock and a sexual orgasm simulta- 
neously felt, hut it is not sexual or electrical, just a 
similar sensation. It's close to sexual without be- 
ing sensual; it's loving, not making love. Love 
surges through the body in waves; one knows no 
enemies; one wants to dance in happiness or hug 
somebody. It's addicting — once you feel it you 
want to feel it again; it causes people who get 
hooked on the feeling to hand with others who 
feel it in order to get a bigger and deeper high. 
One feels akin to God, free of guilt, pain, shame 
or "pull-downs" that normally plague a person. 
The anointed one is nearly unearthly for a few 
minutes. Any good feeling of self-worth and inde- 
structibility could be felt while in this state of 
mind and heart. The anointing is catching; once 
it begins, it often runs around the room from 
person to person — sometimes whole buildings of 
people are hit at once, and everyone stands up 
and begins moving around the building and per- 
forming comical antics of leaping, shouting, danc- 
ing, praising God. Adults revert to uninhibited 
children, to uninhibited child's play — God join- 
ing his children who become as humble as little 
children. Most often the participant is smiling or 
laughing; sometimes it comes with tears and 
weeping, but with relief and release and answered 



prayer. During camp meetings where long prayer 
vigils are common, the sleeping faithful — even 
young children — often rise up in their sleep and 
speak in tongues, prophesy or praise God. If the 
urge to follow what the Spirit directs is resisted, it 
is called "quenching the spirit," which often 
brings on a feeling of remorse later. Situations can 
be set up to attract the Spirit and turn it on: a 
need to pray; someone to pray with; privacy from 
interruption; concert, loud, all-at-once prayer; 
faith that it will happen; a mind set on God; and 
willingness to obey God no matter what He re- 
quires. 

Liston Pack explains that, just as there are dif- 
ferent gifts of the Holy Ghost, there are different 
degrees and effects of the anointing: 

Everybody that feels the anointing of God, I 
think, probably feel it somewhat different. It de- 
pends on how God deals with that individual 
person. Some get a tremendous physical anointing 
that I've heard them say, "I get numb." Some say, 
"I have a tingling sensation," particularly in the 
hands. I don't think that any two people probably 
get anointed just alike. 

The anointing is hard, real hard to explain; 
and 'cause if I was to tell you that you had to feel 
just like me, I might tell you wrong, you see. Let 
every man be persuaded in his own mind, and his 
own conscience, and his own heart in the way 
that the Spirit of God would direct him, you see, 
or her. 

Okay, to me, my anointing would come on 
me — I'm going to use the illustration (it's hard, I 
can't copy it, no way you can copy it) — but if you 
didn't know me, you would think I was havin' a 
stroke or somethin' tremendous was takin' place. 
Well, first of all, it would feel like my scalp would 
start gettin' numb. Well, next of all, my face 
would start, just feel like I didn't have any face. 
Next of all, my hands, my skin would get numb — 
not a numbness of bad feelin' but a numbness of 



Appendix A. Anointment • 141 




Charles Prince, right; Grady Henry, Prince's step- grandfather-in- law, with hand raised; and Jimmy Morrow follow 
one of the "signs" at Carson Springs: "they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover," Mark 16:18. 
Photograph 1984 by Mike DuBose, Knoxville News-Sentinel. 



joy unspeakable. Okay, then I notice my hands 
begin to draw; then I would almost lose complete 
use of my body. Then I am fully anointed. I don't 
care what happens. I don't care how big the ser- 
pent is or how big the devil possessed person. At 
my anointin', as I speak, it will bring out the de- 
mon power that's in the person or the serpent 
that's in the box. I don't care where it's head is; I 
don't care where its tail's at or the middle of it; I 
don't care where it's at, and I'll handle it just any 
way that I see fit. And that's as close to the anoint- 
ing that I can explain. 

In order to learn something about the physi- 
ological effects of the anointing, I proposed to Liston 



Pack that an electroencephalogram be made of him 
while he was experiencing the anointment. He 
agreed, and Dr. Michael Woodruff ran the EEG 
while the event was simultaneously recorded on 
videotape by Thomas Headley of the East Tennes- 
see State University Department of Communica- 
tion. 

Pastor Pack said that he had prepared for the 
session over a period of several months by fasting 
occasionally, praying, and having his wife and church 
members fast and pray. His wife, Mary Kate, fasted 
for five days prior to the session; Liston, for two days. 
He isolated himself considerably the day before as 



142 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



well as the morning of the session; and he had 
stayed home, receiving no phone calls, keeping 
the curtains closed on the windows, praying, fast- 
ing, and drinking some fluids. The degree of fast- 
ing, the number of days, and length of hours were 
not accurately remembered by Pack; however, 
there was a real sense of his "sacrificing" to get 
ready. There was no indication that he was telling 
about the deprivation to make a good impression; 
he was simply explaining that it took considerable 
preparation over a lengthy period in preparing 
himself spiritually to receive heavy anointment 
under the prescribed circumstances. 

The technical details of Dr. Woodruffs report 
are retained here for the sake of those with some 
specialization in the subject. His conclusions, 
however, are relevant to every reader interested in 
serpent handling. 

Report 

Michael L. Woodruff, Ph.D. 
(Behavioral Neuroscience) 
Professor, Department of Anatomy 
Quillen College of Medicine, 
East Tennessee State University 

Electroencephalograph taken from Pastor Liston 
Pack 4:00 p.m. 7 Nov. 1985. 

Technical considerations 

Rev. Pack's EEG was recorded while he was sitting 
in an electrically shielded room (Faraday cage). A 
six channel model 6 SS Grass Electroencephalo- 
graph was used. Electrodes were placed using the 
international 10-20 nasion-inion system at F3, F4, 
P3, P4 and Ol, 02 (F = frontal, with electrodes 
pasted on the forehead above eyes just below the 



scalp line; P = parietal, with electrodes pasted on 
lateral curvature of scalp approximately above 
each ear; O = occipital or posterior of the skull) 
and referenced to the same sided ear (Al or A2). 

Brief comment concerning normal 
EEG patterns in adults 

When analyzed for frequencies using power spec- 
tral analysis, the normal EEG of an awake, alert 
adult is characterized by a range of frequencies (ex- 
pressed as Hertz or Hz) beginning below 1 Hz and 
continuing beyond 50 Hz. This means that every 
EEG pattern that is observable on an ink-writing 
machine is a mixture of these frequencies. That is, 
while an alpha rhythm is defined as being between 
8 and 13 Hz, it is, in fact, composed of a broad 
spectrum of frequencies. However, the slower fre- 
quencies are dominant in the alpha rhythm. The 
higher frequencies are dominant in the beta 
rhythm ( 14 Hz and above; although some workers 
in the field of EEG analysis would add an "inter- 
mediate" band of 14-18 Hz). The other two fre- 
quencies are slower than alpha. Theta is 4 to 8 Hz, 
while delta is 0.5 through 3 Hz. 

Despite popular usage, the scalp EEG is not 
brain waves. Rather, the EEG, as recorded from the 
scalp, is produced by the neurons of the neocor- 
tex. The electrical activity of subcortical structures 
(e.g. hippocampus) may or may not be similar to 
the pattern recorded from the scalp. 

If many neurons are generating excitatory and 
inhibitory potentials at the same instances in time, 
then they are acting in synchrony and the result- 
ing EEG is synchronous. The delta, theta, and al- 
pha rhythms are synchronous rhythms. The beta 
is a dysynchronous rhythm. 

When one is alert and attentive (i.e. presum- 



Appendix A. Anointment • 143 



ably processing, or ready to process, information), 
the EEG is predominately (though not exclusively) 
in beta, or desynchronized. As one relaxes, and es- 
pecially if the eyes are closed, the EEG gradually 
becomes more synchronous. The synchronous 
waves (alpha) normally appear over the occipital 
(posterior) lobe first and spread forward. As the 
person becomes more relaxed the EEG slows; and 
the beginning of a "doze" will find mixtures of al- 
pha, theta, and delta in the EEG. (Further infor- 
mation regarding the electrical activity of the 
brain and illustrations of the scalp EEG discussed 
above may be found in M. A. B. Brazier, Electrical 
Activity of the Nervous System, 4th ed., Baltimore: 
Williams, 1977.) 

Rev. Pack's EEG 

During the first few minutes following placement 
of the electrodes, Rev. Pack's EEG record was 
clearly one of an individual nervous in a strange 
environment. The EEG frequency was within the 
beta range, specifically between 24 and 27 Hz, from 
all leads. Artifact produced by saccadic eye move- 
ments was evident in the frontal leads. (Eye move- 
ment artifact is not an electrical potential pro- 
duced by the brain, but rather the actual potential 
of the eyeball itself as it shifts in its socket. This is 
picked up by the frontal electrodes.) Within 3 or 
4 minutes of electrode attachment, bursts of alpha 
lasting for 2 to 3 seconds were observable from the 
occipital leads (i.e., from the posterior part of the 
skull). This occurred with eyes open and is a nor- 
mal phenomenon, but might be interpreted to in- 
dicate that Rev. Pack was becoming comfortable 
in the recording environment. 

At onset of preparation for anointment Rev. 



Pack closed his eyes, and within 45 seconds alpha 
was prevalent in the occipital and parietal leads 
(i.e., from the posterior and roof of the skull). The 
amplitude (as much as 100 microvolts peak-to- 
peak from the occipital leads and 60 to 75 micro- 
volts in the parietal leads) and regularity of the 
waves (10 or 11 Hz continuously for the approxi- 
mately 3.5 minutes of "relaxed preparation") in- 
creased significantly compared to the alpha that 
had been appearing. Alpha continued to dominate 
the record and spread to the frontal lobes after sev- 
eral minutes. As is normally seen, even in people 
engaged in forms of relaxation-oriented medita- 
tion, the frontal alpha was never as robust as that 
recorded from the occipital leads. The alpha ap- 
pearing in Rev. Pack's record was never as steady 
(that is, the waves tended to wax and wane in am- 
plitude), nor as slow as those I have obtained from 
trained meditators (TM, Yogic, or mystical Chris- 
tian) in the later stages of meditation; but the al- 
pha was comparable to early stages of such medi- 
tation. It should be noted that the final motor 
patterns obtained by these trained meditators dif- 
fer considerably from those exhibited by Pack, as 
stillness and quietude accompany their medita- 
tions. Finally, one point of some interest to me is 
that the alpha maintained in Rev. Pack's record, 
even during the periods just before anointment, 
began when he was moving his hands in his lap 
(but not lifting them) and tapping his foot. This 
suggests to me that these movements were gener- 
ated predominately by subcortical structures. 

Desynchronization of the EEG on all leads 
accompanied Rev. Pack's indication of the anoint- 
ment state. The beta frequency was dominant 
at between 20 and 24 Hz in the frontal and pari- 
etal leads. The amplitude was on the order of 40 



144 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



microvolts in these areas. The occipital leads 
showed somewhat slower frequency (18-19 Hz), 
higher amplitude (60 to 75 microvolts) activity 
than the frontal and parietal leads. Once again this 
is not at all abnormal, even during periods of con- 
centration and arousal; however, the occipital fre- 
quencies after anointment were slightly faster than 
those exhibited by Rev. Pack during the first few 
minutes of the recording session before he exhib- 
ited any alpha in his record. 

Conclusions 

Unfortunately, the record is fraught with muscle 
and movement artifacts, and I cannot glean any 
further specific information from it. However, I 
feel safe in concluding several things. 

1. There is absolutely nothing abnormal about 
the EEG in a clinical sense. I find no evidence of 
seizure activity, abnormal slowing, or asymmetri- 
cal rhythmic patterns. I take this to indicate that 
the Rev. Pack's experience of anointment is not 
brought on by some idiopathic neuropathological 
state; nor is it the result of some form of self- 
induced epileptic seizure. 

2. Preparation for anointment obviously involves 
a period of time during which the individual en- 
ters an EEG state similar to that customarily in- 
volved in meditation. That Rev. Pack was able to 
do this readily in an environment that, given his 
background, must have been alien to him, as well 
as in the presence of "skeptical" scientists, indi- 
cates to me that he has a great deal of control 
over his mental state. 

3. There is a sudden conversion from alpha to 
beta when the anointment begins. The beta pat- 
tern persists throughout the experience. Anoint- 
ment, therefore, is a very active state from the 



point of view of the cerebral neocortex. The EEG 
is that of an aroused individual — not that, for 
example, of a Zen monk in contemplation. The 
chief difference between the Reverend Pack's 
EEG during the first five minutes of recording and 
the anointment condition is that in the latter the 
frequency recorded from the occipital leads was 
higher with little evidence of alpha in the raw 
EEG. Putative interpretation of this EEG pattern 
would be that it indicates an aroused state. It is 
clearly within normal parameters, although the 
accompanying behavior indicated a person in the 
hold of a religious experience. 

4. Taken as a unit the EEG patterns exhibited by 
Rev. Pack during the entire session remind me of 
things I have read concerning hypnosis. Persons 
who are good candidates for hypnosis generally 
have more than average alpha in their normal 
EEGs and tend to generate more alpha with 
greater ease when eyes are closed than those per- 
sons not as susceptible to hypnosis. The EEG 
during hypnosis, however, reflects whatever state 
is suggested. That is, if it is suggested to a person 
that he is in danger from a fire in the building 
(which is flame free) then the EEG is desyn- 
chronized. If, on the other hand, the suggestion is 
that he is peacefully contemplating the ocean, 
then the EEG tends to be dominated by alpha. A 
hypothesis stemming from this, therefore, would 
be that the keys to understanding Rev. Pack's 
physiological, or at least neurological, functioning 
during anointment are probably more likely to be 
found in the literature on hypnosis, than in the 
literature on meditation. 

This hypothesis is not intended to negate the 
experience of anointment, since the idea of self- 
hypnosis too easily becomes equated with self- 
delusion. However, it is a hypothesis worthy of 
further consideration. 




Appendix B 

The 
Music 



Music is an integral part of the serpent-handling 
service. The serpents do not hear the music since 
they do not have the auditory mechanism for air- 
borne sound: "The conduction of ground vibra- 
tions, through the bones of the skull to the inner 
ear, forms the only kind of 'hearing' in snakes and 
can only operate as a vibration detector" (Morris 
and Morris 194)- The effect of the vibration of the 
music on the serpents is undeterminable since sci- 
entific contextual data of the influence is nonex- 
istent; however, from observation alone, it is evi- 
dent that the serpents come out of the boxes 
sometimes striking, sometimes not. Also, the ser- 
pents are sometimes handled on occasions when 
no music is employed. 

Believers are aware of the proposition that the 
music is a determining cause for the failure of ser- 
pents to bite, and they will sometimes address the 
matter directly. For example, in the pulpit with ser- 
pents in hand and no music being played, Brother 
Bob Elkins of the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, 
West Virginia, will tell his audience that it is not 
the music that prevents the serpents from biting, 
"it's the power of God." Dewey Chafin, also of Jolo, 
says that he cannot detect any difference in the 
activity of the serpents relative to the music. "Say, 
you got serpents in your hand and the music starts 
or stops — you can't tell any difference at all. I've 
got bit with music full blast or without music. I 
don't think music would have any effect on them 
at all, any way." 

Music no doubt is instrumental in altered states 
of consciousness such as the experience of being 
"anointed." Serpent handlers themselves attest to 
the significance of the music in the service and in 
handling the serpents. "Getting one's mind on God," 
as Dewey Chafin says. "Just like the preaching; you're 



146 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Tim McCoy, swirling with tambourine, joined by talented guitarist Roy Lee "Bootie" Christian, on 
the left. Photograph J 988 by the author. 



getting in the spirit — getting more prepared to 
handle snakes or laying hands on the sick or any- 
thing that you're doing for God. It's like a booster — 
like preaching, testifying, or praying. It helps you 
get into the perfect will of God." 

Again there is no controlled scientific data 
relative to the effect of music on the serpent-han- 
dling believer, but it is clear that music is not a 
necessary determining factor in the anointment. 
Liston Pack's experience while undergoing an 
EEC is one example. 

Because of the unquestionable significance of 
music in the service and the role that it can play 
in the handling of serpents, at least some knowl- 
edge of the nature of the music is critical. The fol- 
lowing essay provides a perceptive overview. 



Music of the Serpent-Handling Service 
by Scott W. Schwartz 

The music of selected serpent-handling services 
from Tennessee, West Virginia, and Georgia is 
improvisatory in nature and is characterized by 
free melodic and textual variation. It is derived 
from a mixture of commercial bluegrass and coun- 
try-western music that utilizes simple 12- and 16- 
bar blues progressions of I, IV, V, and sometimes 
VI chords. In many instances the improvised 
melodies are based upon secular recorded music 
that is broadcast over commercial radio and tele- 
vision stations and is familiar therefore both to the 
musicians and to other church members. These 
secular melodies are set to religious prose and bib- 



Appendix B. Music • 147 




lical texts. They commonly take the form of a 
church hymn performed in the style of a blues 
piece. (Combining secular melodies and religious 
texts to form a sacred composition has a long tra- 
dition. The Renaissance Mass, for example, uti- 
lized many secular melodies set to sacred texts. A 
case in point is Jacob Obrecht's Missa 'Fortima 
desperata.') 

Various instruments, both amplified and acous- 
tical, are used in performing the music. Typically, 
piano, organ, guitar, bass, cymbals, tambourines, 
and trapset are employed. In addition to the var- 
ied instrumental combinations, there is usually 
one lead musician, either a vocalist or an instru- 
mentalist, who serves as a moderator for each mu- 
sical piece. 

Frequently, an instrumental ensemble starts 
the service off in the form of a jam session. The 



Members of the Jolo 
congregation dancing 
together in the space 
between pulpit and 
pews where the serpent 
handling, poison 
drinking, shouting, and 
dancing are principally 
conducted. Photograph 
1988 by the author. 



service then often gets in full swing with the per- 
formance of a vocalist. The remaining musicians 
sporadically make their entrances once a "commu- 
nal" key and rhythmic tempo have been intu- 
itively agreed upon. The tonal center and tempo 
commonly shift several times during the first 
stanza of each musical selection. It is also common 
for the numbers to terminate abruptly, usually be- 
fore the concluding cadence of the final verse. 

The two most distinctive characteristics of this 
music are: ( 1 ) the use of blues harmonic progres- 
sions and (2) melodic repetition. The first of these 
characteristics is not unique to this type of music. 
Similar harmonic progressions can be found in a 
variety of popular American music, ranging from 
jazz to country and western. In the music of the 
serpent-handling service, however, the essential 
quality of the blues progressions is the accommo- 



148 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



dation of the melody to the extemporized song 
texts. (Blues progressions lend themselves to this 
adaptation of music to text because of the final 
V-I harmonic resolution.) 

The second characteristic is the use of melodic 
repetition with extemporized texts. Performance of 
a single piece will frequently continue repeti- 
tiously for fifteen to twenty minutes. The length 
and style of these melodic repetitions are controlled 
principally by the textual improvisation. Whereas 
many of the songs have a prescribed number of 
stanzas in the singers' "fake books" or "lead sheets," 
there is no apparent limit regarding the number 
and length of stanzas employed during any single 
performance. As a result, songs performed by the 
same group of musicians for different serpent-han- 
dling services are never the same. 

In conjunction with these two dominant fea- 
tures, there is an integral social relationship be- 
tween the musicians and the other participants in 
the service. At the peak of the religious service 
there seems to be no eye contact between the mu- 
sicians. They, like the serpent-handling partici- 
pants, seem to become self-involved in their per- 
formance. Each individual musician appears to be 
more concerned in creating a personal performance 
than in a group ensemble. 

The individuality among the instrumentalists 
is characterized by flexible rhythmic tempos, vary- 



ing bombastic dynamic levels, and loud, seemingly 
incoherent, instrumental accompaniments that of- 
ten obscure the song texts. (This particular lack of 
intelligibility in the texts is not to be confused 
with speaking in tongues, another phenomenon 
associated with the service.) At times the combi- 
nation of individual expressions appears almost 
chaotic. Each instrumentalist, singer, and serpent 
handler appears completely self-involved — they 
would say "led by the Spirit." Toward the conclu- 
sion of a musical piece, however, the instrumen- 
talists seem to restore control over the event; the 
"lead" musician often plays a significant role in 
this restoration. 

The music of the serpent-handling service is 
not melodically or harmonically complex. It is char- 
acterized by monophonic melodies built around 
simple blues progressions. But this outward sim- 
plicity obscures its intricate internal function. 

In order to understand better the music within 
a service, one should examine it not simply as a 
separate entity but as a part of the total perfor- 
mance context. From this approach, the mu- 
sic may be viewed as more than providing a vital 
musicological phenomenon and complementing 
altered states of consciousness. It may be seen, 
in its complex combination of individual and 
group expressions, as a symbol of the entire 
serpent-handling service. 




Appendix C 

The 

Life of 

George 

Hensley 



George Hensley is such an important figure in the 
history' of serpent handling that it is important to 
bring together as much data relative to him as pos- 
sible. His personal story is integrated with other 
important events relative to serpent handling in 
chapters 2 and 3, but his life is so convoluted that 
it is difficult to keep the events in order. The fol- 
lowing chronology provides a useful overview. 

Parents 

Susan Jane Hensley (1850-1919) buried in Ooltewah, 
Tennessee; Emanual Hensley (1850-1929), died in 
Knoxville, Tennessee (second wife named Sue). 

Siblings 

List provided by a nephew from the memory of 
family members: Mary, Trisa, Delia Mae, Bell, 
Avalina Jane (m. Brown), Hedrick, Henry, Vick 
(m. Lawson), Be(r)nett, Bertha (m.Weaver), George 

List in the 1880 U.S. Census, 9th District (Watterson) 
of Hawkins County: Mary (12), Lutitia (10), Delia 
(8), Belle (7), Lena (4), Headnck (1) 

Chronology 
1880(7) 

2 May George Went Hensley born; examina- 
tion for ordination implies 1880 as year 
of birth, as does marriage certificate of 
George and Inez Hutcheson, as do vari- 
ous newspaper accounts; the Bible of 
his wife Amanda states 1 88 1 ; his son 
James Roscoe's birth certificate implies 
1881; his son Loyal's birth certificate 
implies 1882. Loyal's birth certificate 
indicates that George was born in West 



150 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



1899 




George Hensley with second wife, Irene. Photograph 
c. 1927 courtesy of La Creta Simmons. 



Virginia; his daughter Jean's says Scott 
County, Virginia; James Roscoe's in 
Tennessee. (No record of his birth 
found in the vital records of Tennessee, 
Virginia, or West Virginia.) According 
to a newspaper account, "He said he did 
not know how to read or write and 
could not spell the name of his birth- 
place in Tennessee" (Abbott 1 ). Place 
of birth is likely the Watterson commu- 
nity outside Rogersville, Hawkins 
County, in northeast Tennessee. 



c. 1890 



1900 



1901 

5 May 



Moved, probably to Loudon County, 
Tennessee. 



Reports of the initiation of handling 
serpents: 

( 1 ) "George W. Hensley, 70 years old, 
started the snake rites when he was 14" 
("Snake Kills Cultist" 12); the year 
1899 is computed on Hensley's age as 
cited here (though erroneously) at his 
death in 1955. Based on his probable 
birthday, the date at age 14 would be 

1 894- (George may have first witnessed 
the handling of serpents as a boy before 
he moved to Ooltewah. ) 

(2) "His followers said Hensley, 56 
years ago [apparently prior to the re- 
ported event of his death (1955) rather 
than prior to the date of the newspaper 
article], picked up a rattler in 
Tennessee's Grasshopper Valley and it 
didn't bite him" (Kimsey 9D). 

Membership in Baptist church termi- 
nated (Examination Certificate, ques- 
tions 53-54). 

Report of initiation of handling ser- 
pents: "The Rev. O. M. Lassiter, an 
associate of Rev. Hensley in the Holi- 
ness Church, told newsmen Hensley . . . 
had been bitten at least 400 times by 
poisonous snakes during the past 55 
years" ("Snakebitten Preacher" 3). 

Married Amanda Wininger at Lenoir 
City (Loudon County), Tennessee; 
lived soon thereafter in Ooltewah, 
Tennessee. 



Appendix C. Life of George Hensley • 151 



1903 

6 June 

1904 

9 June 



1905 



1907 

HJune 

1908 



1909 



20 Dec. 



1910 



Daughter Bessie Jane born, died 24 July. 

Daughter Mae Marie (m. Hixon) horn. 

Inferred date of initiating serpent han- 
dling from local newspaper account of 
his death in 1955 reporting that he 
"told listeners he had been handling 
snakes for 50 years" ("Rattlesnake Bite 
Kills" 1). 

Daughter Katie Pearl born. 

Owl Holler Church of God dedicated 
by Homer Tomlinson; George's con- 
version (Examination Certificate, ques- 
tion 26). 

Initially took up a serpent at Rainbow 
Rock on White Oak Mountain near 
Ooltewah, according to reports and 
tradition. 

Daughter Rosa Frances (m. Harden) 
born. 



Started preaching (Examination Cer- 
tificate, question 67); abstained from 
tobacco (question 44); resorted to Bible 
for healing (question 70); baptized with 
the Holy Ghost (question 29); spoke in 
tongues (question 30). 

Initiation of practice according to 1938 
report: "G. W. Hensley . . . says he started 



1912 



1913 



the snake handling rite 28 years ago 
in Sale Creek, Tennessee [near 
Birchwood and Grasshopper Church of 
God" ("Rattlesnake," Post 101 ). 

Became a member of the Church of 
God (Examination Certificate, ques- 
tion 68). 

Baptized by Church of God (Examina- 
tion Certificate, question 32). (He 
may have been baptized earlier by the 
Baptists, but it is very likely at this 
time that, from the influence of fellow- 
Church of God members or solely from 
personal conviction, he felt that he 
should be rebaptized.) 

28 Sept. Son Jessie Franklin born. 

Year in which Hensley began to take up 
serpents according to inference from 
newspaper reports in 1936: "'I've been 
handling serpents for 23 years,' he said" 
("Preacher Juggles Snake" 1 ); "Hensley 
said in his 23 years of snake-handling 
demonstrations he had seen a number 
of persons bitten but none had died" 
(Abbott 1). 



1914 



Report of having held a meeting along 
with his wife Amanda (who makes the 
report) for thirteen days at "Evansville" 
and later one at Dayton, Tennessee, 
with another husband-and-wife team. 
Divine healing mentioned, but no ser- 
pent handling (Evangel 4 Apr.: 7). 



152 * Serpent-Handling Believers 



Reports from Evangel and Cleveland/ 
Chattanooga papers of Hensley's in- 
volvement in handling serpents in 
Cleveland and Ooltewah, Tennessee: 

Aug. Report of "conducting [with M. S. 

Haynes and others] a revival at the 
tabernacle in Cleveland, Tenn. It be- 
gan the last Sunday in Aug. and is still 
continuing with increasing interest. . . . 
Twice during the meeting, [sic] Ser- 
pents have been handled by the Saints" 
(Evangel, 12 Sept.: 2). A later report in 
the Evangel of the revival at the taber- 
nacle in South Cleveland: 'Among 
those who were used under the power of 
God in taking up these serpents were 
Geo. Hensley and wife, M. S. Haynes 
and wife, T. L. McLain, and W. S. Gen- 
try. Many others did it with great grace 
and apparent sublimity" ( 19 Sept.: 3). 
Newspaper report of "tent" meetings in 
South Cleveland for ten days with ser- 
pent handling, but no names men- 
tioned ("'Holy Rollers' Handle Snakes" 
12). 

1 5 Sept. Report of the South Cleveland Taber- 
nacle, where serpents had been handled 
previously, and of two men who had 
been bitten: "The meeting tonight was 
held in a barn-like affair with a sawdust 
floor, known as the 'taberneckle.' It is 
located in South Cleveland, and the 
'Holy Rollers' are said to have erected it 
with their own funds." No mention of 
Hensley, but the article concludes: 
"The 'Church of God' and its snakes are 
going to move along to Ooltewah next 
week" ("Proselyting" 3). 



17 Sept. 



18 Sept. 



20 Sept. 



22 Sept. 



23 Sept. 



26 Sept. 



4 Oct. 



1915 



Reference to serpent handling in the 
South Cleveland Tabernacle and 
"these saints of God in Bradley 
County," but no mention of Hensley 
("Snakes in Demand" I). 

Report regarding "tent meetings" in 
South Cleveland with snakes, but no 
mention of Hensley ("Continue to Play 
with Poisonous Snakes" 5). 

Hensley leads a tent meeting in 
Ooltewah; serpent handled by fifteen or 
twenty; he "announces that ... he will 
walk the waters of the Tennessee river" 
("Reptile in the Meetin'" 3). 

Reported living in Owl Hollow and as 
saying "that if the devil tempts him to 
walk the river, the Lord will give him 
power to do it so that unbelievers may 
believe" ("All Depends on the Devil" 
9). 

Hensley holds meetings in Ooltewah, 
one each day, to continue for another 
month ("He Can Handle Snakes" 3). 

Hensley reported as denying that he 
said he would walk on the Tennessee 
River ("Holy Rollers Anoint" 2). 

Report of Hensley's meeting in 
Ooltewah, attended by A. J. Tomlinson, 
where "Two large rattlesnakes have 
been taken up under the power of God" 
(Evangel 4 Oct. 1914:6). 



2 1 Aug. Report of Hensley's and N . P. Mulkey's 
having "closed the meeting out on the 
mountain," where "the rattlesnake" was 



Appendix C. Life of George Hensley ' 153 




James Roscoe Hensley, a son by George' s first 
marriage, now in retirement from his ministry in the 
Church of God (Cleveland). Photograph 1990 by the 
author. 

handled, and of their presently holding 
a meeting in Soddy, Tennessee, "Geo. 
Hensley, in charge" (Evangel 21 Aug. 
1915:3). 

29 Sept. Son James Roscoe horn in Harrison, 

Tennessee. 

30 Oct. Report of Hensley 's closing a meeting 

the last of September in Dividing 
Ridge, Tennessee, where eighty-two of 
the eighty-three members had the Holy 
Ghost and about forty handled a rattler 
(Evangel 30 Oct. 1915:4). 

25 Dec. Conference held by Hensley with local 
church (Dividing Ridge, Tennessee) 
and their recommendation for his min- 
istry (Examination Certificate, ques- 
tions 3, 94, 95); "Date of Credentials" 
in ministers ledger of the Church of 
God ("Evangelists H" 338); first 
Evangelist's Certificate (renewed in 
1919). (Apparently it was a common 



1916 



1917 



practice to begin preaching without 
any formal credentials. One may infer 
that, after becoming a member of the 
Church of God and continuing to 
preach, Hensley applied for this level, 
the Evangelist's Certificate.) 

Held revival in Harrison, Tennessee, 
where it was reported that thirty or 
more received the Holy Ghost (Evangel 
5 Feb.: 2). 

Examination Certificate by Church of 
God (The form is filled out in a crude 
handwriting and not always on the line 
provided; it would appear he signed it 
himself, "Mr. george hensly [sic]." He 
gives his home address as Birchwood, 
Tennessee, and his church membership 
as Dividing Ridge; he indicates that he 
had no "fair education," that he had 
property to cover his debt of twenty- 
five dollars, and that he is applying for 
ordination (perhaps a different level 
from Evangelist). 

Became first pastor of East Cleveland 
Church of God (officially organized on 
13 Jan. 1918). 

A report from Birchwood, Tennessee, 
thanking God for sending Hensley to 
preach holiness (Evangel 13 Apr. 1983: 
2). 

8 Aug. Daughter Esther Lee born. 



1918 



13 Apr. 



1922 

20 Jan. 



Letter to A. J. Tomlinson from East 



1 54 • Serperu-Handling Believers 




Chattanooga, apparently the East 
Chattanooga Church of God, respond- 
ing to inquiry regarding Hensley's 
membership: "I have examined the 
records hut did not find his name only 
as pastor at one time. The records here 
show that they have been very improp- 
erly kept. . . ." 

8 (6?) Feb. Letter (unsigned copy, initialed "W 
MC/MP") to M. W. Letsinger, who 
was the Tennessee overseer at the time, 
stating that the writer ( W MC/MP) was 
"in receipt of a letter from J. P. Hughes 
stating that the matter is arranged 
satisfactorly [sic] with the church, 
therefore, it will be alright to give them 




Above: Two sons of the first two of George Hensley's 
four marriages, Roscoe (Amanda' s son, on the left) 
and Loyal (Irene's son, on the right). Photograph 
courtesy of J. R. Hensley. 



Left: Faith Lillian, George and Irene Hensley's 
daughter, born 1928. Photograph courtesy of J. R. 
Hensley. 



[the enclosed license] to him [George 
Hensley]. Please address him c/o Bertha 
Weaver, Waldbridge, Ohio." (Hughes 
was the third pastor of the East Cleve- 
land Church of God; therefore the letter 
of 20 Jan. to Tomlinson was apparently 
from Hughes.) George may have al- 
ready left the Birchwood area (although 
his final separation from Amanda did 
not occur until August) to stay with his 
sister Bertha Weaver — possibly before 
he had begun his period of backsliding. 
The enclosed license might have been a 
renewal or one of a higher level. 

8 Aug. Separated from Amanda (as listed in 
her Bible). 



Appendix C. Life of George Hensley * 155 




Emma Jean Potts, George and Irene Hensley' s 
daughter. Photograph courtesy of J. R. Hensley. 

At some time during the years 1921-24, 
when M. W. Litsinger was overseer of 
Tennessee, turned in his license — 
probably in late 1922 or early 1923; 
reason stated on the form, entitled Re- 
vocation of Ministry, Church of God: 
"Resigned — has much trouble in the 
home." 

1923 

1 5 Mar. Son William Hilman born to Amanda. 

27 Mar. Found guilty of selling liquor, $100 fine 
and court costs plus four months in jail; 
escapes from work detail in Silverdale, 
Tennessee. Hides out in Ooltewah. 

Date unknown 

Goes to Ohio perhaps to stay with his 
sister Bertha in Walbridge. 



1926 

9 Nov. 



Divorced from Amanda; Bill of Divorce 
granted to Amanda from George, who 
"abandoned claimant." 



1927 

6 Mar. Marries Irene Klunzinger in Alliance, 
Ohio. 



1928 

3 Mar. 



Daughter Faith born in Washington- 
ville, Ohio; George listed as 45 and 
Irene as 23 on birth certificate. (These 
ages would make his birth 1882 and 
hers 1904.) 



1929 



23 Oct. Son Loyal born in Malvern, Ohio. 

c. 1931-32 

Held meeting handling serpents at 
sister Bertha's church in Walbridge, 
according to George's niece Grace 
Cook. 



1932 



4 June 



1935 



lOJuly 



Daughter Vinette born. George is pas- 
tor of East Pineville Church of God 
(Kane, "Snake Handlers of Southern 
Appalachia"60). 



Daughter Emma Jean born in 
Pennington Gap, Virginia. 



Summer Newspaper reports: "Rev. Hensley con- 
ducted snake handling demonstrations" 
in St. Charles, Virginia ("No Law 
Against Handling Snakes" 1 ). 

18 Aug. Hensley identified in newspaper as a 

"holiness evangelist of St. Charles [Vir- 
ginia]" ("Snake Head Torn Off" 1) and 
reported in Ramsey, Virginia, leading 
500 followers who cause "a near riot on 



156 • Serpent- Handling Believers 



1936 



Mar. 



IMar. 



8 Mar. 



1 1 Mar. 



3 May 



the highway" ("Wave Rattler in 
Frenzy" 17). 

Hensley reported to have "established 
the weird cult among the miners and 
farmers of southwestern Virginia on the 
Tennessee border," apparently includ- 
ing the church in Stone Creek, Vir- 
ginia. ("They Shall Take Up Serpents," 
Newsweek 88). 

". . . initiated an extended series of re- 
vival meetings in central Florida" 
(Kane, "Snake Handlers of Southern 
Appalachia"61,280). 

Reported as preaching and handling a 
rattlesnake in Tampa, Florida ("Pastor 
HereWhirlsSnake"l,12). 

Reported outside of Tampa in 
Bloomingdale at a county church and 
being bitten; "said he was going next 
into Georgia but would return to 
Tampa soon" ("Preacher Juggles 
Snake" 8). 

Reported to have visited during the 
previous week, along with "some of his 
disciples," a man who canned rattle- 
snakes near Arcadia, Florida ("Snake 
Expert Warns People" 7 ) . 

Conducted a revival in Bartow, Florida, 
where Alfred Weaver was bitten and 
died the following day. Newspaper 
reports: "Hensley has been here for 
several weeks. He came here after giv- 
ing snake-handling demonstrations in 
the Benjamin field fight arena at Tampa 
and at Bloomingdale. Since he has been 



6 May 



1936-37 



1938 



here his ceremony has been filmed by 
movie news reel cameramen. After the 
inquest he said he would discontinue 
his meeting here" (Abbott 6). 

Conducted funeral services for Weaver 
and by report "said he planned to go to 
west Florida. He did not say when he 
would leave" ("County Buries Snake 
Victim" 7). 

Lived in Pineville, Kentucky, with 
Irene and family (minus Loyal). 



Summer "... charged with breach of the peace in 
handling snakes" along with two other 
men at the Pine Mountain Church of 
God, Harlan County, Kentucky; re- 
ported as railroad conductor and pastor 
of East Pineville Church of God near 
Harlan, Kentucky (Kerman, "Rattle- 
snake Religion," Post 10-11). 

1939 

9 Sept. Preaching and handling serpents during 
revival at McGhee Street Church of 
God (McGhee and Richards streets) in 
Knoxville, Tennessee ("'Deadly' 
Snakes Passed Around" A9). 

1 1 Sept. Continuing preaching at McGhee 
Street and reported as "touring 
churches in the South demonstrating 
his faith" ("The Reverend George 
Hensley of Pineville, Ky." 3). 

24 Sept. Preached his "farewell service" at 

McGhee Street, returned "to his home 
in Pineville, Ky.," but expected back on 



Appendix C. Life of George Hensley * 157 



1940 

1941 

7 Dec. 

1942 



1943 



1944 

Spring 

21 Aug. 

1945 

20 July 



the 26th "to conduct revival services 8 Sept. 

for the rest of the week at John Sevier 
[on Rutledge Pike]" ("Snake Custo- 
dian" 12). 

Still living in Pineville when son Loyal 

rejoins family. 23 Sept. 



Residing in Duff, Tennessee (north of 
LaFollette), on a farm he had bought. 

Sold farm and moved to Evansville, 
Indiana; separated from Irene hut rec- 
onciled and moved back to Pineville. 



Separated from Irene and family, who 
move in with Esther Lee in Chatta- 
nooga; George returned to Birchwood 
area, probably residing at least part of 
the time on sister Jane's farm in 
Ooltewah and with daughter Rosa. 

Son Roscoe hears him preach in a cot- 
tage meeting. 

Irene dies at 39. 

Reported "of Harlan County, Ky." 
("They Shall Take Up Serpents," 

Newsweek 88). 



1946 

23 Sept. 



1947 

7 Mar. 



Reported as having "assisted in found- 
ing the Dolly [sic] Pond Church of God 10 Aug. 
a month ago" ("Demonstration of 
Faith" 1). 



Lewis Ford, who died 3 September of 
serpent bite, buried across the Dolly 
Pond Road from the church with an 
estimated 2,500 people attending fu- 
neral (Pennington, "Ford, Rattler's 
Victim" 1). 

Arrested in Chattanooga along with 
Tom Harden while holding services; 
each fined $50 for disorderly conduct; 
Hensley reported as "of Brightsville, 
Tenn.," and "a member of a snake- 
handling cult" there (Corliss, "2 'Faith- 
Healing' Ministers" 1). 



Married Inez Riggs (m. Hutcheson) in 
Rossville (Walker County), Georgia, 
by a justice of the peace (George was 
66, Inez 51); moved with her and her 
four children to Inez's farm in Soddy, 
Tennessee; separated in less than a 
year. (She had been present on 1 3 July 
when Joe C. Jackson was bitten during 
service at Clyde Leffew's house in 
Daisy, Tennessee, but Hensley name is 
not mentioned in report as present 
(Corliss, "Snake Bite During Church 
Rites" 1). 



Tennessee Code 39-2208 signed, pro- 
hibiting the handling of poisonous 
snakes "in such a manner as to endan- 
ger the life or health of any person." 

Tom Harden, six other men, and five 
women arrested at Dolley Pond Church 
of God with Signs Following for han- 
dling serpents. George is not among 



158 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



those indicted on 1 1 September, but it 
is reported that he would be a defense 
witness ("Snake Handlers of Georgia, 
Kentucky" 1 ) and he is photographed 
with Tom Harden and others at the 
trial (Smartt 1). 

24 Oct. Reported as 67 years old, a resident of 
Route 3, Chattanooga, handling ser- 
pents during tent services conducted 
for the past 30 days by the Undivided 
Church of God; arrested along with 
Reece Ramsey, 63, Cecil Denkins, 2 1 , 
and Berlin Barbee, 23 ("Man Bitten 
Here in Snake Service" 3). 

13 Dec. Reported as assistant pastor of South 
Chattanooga Church of God, which 
was established in a heated tent 
("Snake Cult Opens Church" 3 ) . 



c. 1949 



1952 



1955 



Described as preaching in a tent meet- 
ing in East Chattanooga where serpents 
were handled; description cites 1909 as 
the year when Hensley initially took up 
serpents, apparently from information 
derived firsthand (Robertson 169-71 ). 



Married Sally Moore (m. Norman) 
sometime relatively soon after Harve 
Norman, Sally's husband, died in 195 1 ; 
moved to Georgia (he is reported later 
as being of Albany). 



24 July, Sunday 

Bit by serpent near Altha (northern 
part of Calhoun County), Florida, 4:15 
F.M.; died the following morning at 6:45 
according to newspaper report ("Rattle- 
snake Bite Kills 75-Year-Old Cult Head" 
2). 



Appendix D 

Some 
Questions 



Almost everyone has heard about religious serpent 
handling, but few have ever had the opportunity 
to witness it. Whenever the subject comes up, it 
of course raises numerous questions. Usually the 
questions are the same, and although I do not claim 
to have all the answers, I have tried to answer the 
most common questions. 

The Serpents 

Is anyone other than the participants 
endangered by the serpents? 

Normally the serpents are handled in an area in- 
side in the building at the front away from the 
nonparticipants. Often the pastor or one of the 
other leaders is watchful when the serpents are out 
of the boxes so that they do not get loose or that 
someone does not unnecessarily get hurt. Pastor 
Liston Pack at Carson Springs, Tennessee, for ex- 
ample, will pick up serpents that are dropped or 
abandoned and put them back in the boxes. Bar- 
bara Elkins at Jolo, West Virginia, will watch some 
of the handlers intensely, particularly the females 
and younger ones, and will sometimes take ser- 
pents from them, apparently when she feels some- 
thing is not right. When serpents are handled out- 
doors, a restricted area is designated — for example 
a platform, a tent, or sometimes space marked off 
by bales of hay. Precautions, however, are not al- 
ways taken by and for the handlers. Sometimes ser- 
pents will be draped around someone's neck or placed 
in someone's hands and on a few occasions — less fre- 
quently nowadays — even thrown, unrequested, to 
another person. 



160 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



■*■■« 



MARK »6 : 18 
THEY SHALL TAKE UP 
SERPE NTS _ 

*"* ^ m . Ill 1M IT II I 






Inscribed snake box at Jolo. Photograph 1991 by Bill Snead. 

How deadly are snake bites? 

The bite of the serpents commonly handled in ser- 
vices can be fatal, more likely if the snake is a rattle- 
snake than a copperhead or cottonmouth. If the 
bite receives proper medical treatment, the prob- 
ability of death is slight. 

In an authoritative study of serpent venom, F. 
E. Russell finds that the seriousness of snake-venom 
poisoning depends upon several factors relative to 
the snake and the person bitten. Relative to the 
serpent are such matters as species, size, degree of 
fear or anger motivating the bite, length of time 
and amount of venom injected, pathogens present 
in the snake's mouth, and the condition of its fangs 
and glands. Concerns regarding the person bitten 
are age, size, nature of bite (including location, 
depth, number), and medical treatment received 
("The Clinical Problem" 987). Some eight thou- 
sand individuals in the United States are bitten 



each year by venomous snakes, and fewer than a 
dozen die from the bite, the majority fatalities be- 
ing untreated or undertreated children or religious 
serpent handlers (985). 

One may infer from these statistics that ven- 
omous bites received by serpent handlers would 
not normally be lethal if they received proper treat- 
ment; no inference can be drawn from this data 
relative to the comparative effects of venomous 
bites received by serpent handlers and those by 
other untreated adults. Skeptics sometimes con- 
clude from similar statistics that adherents are not 
involved in great danger. Even discarding the deaths 
by serpent bite, a quick look at some of the photo- 
graphs of "bad" bites — showing black, distended 
flesh or atrophied hands and missing fingers — is 
enough to convince anyone of the imminent harm. 
In regard to inherent danger, serpent handlers seem 
to be "damned if there is and damned if there isn't." 

Serpent handlers themselves sometimes almost 



Appendix D . Some Questions • 161 




Mrs. Ray Johnson being comforted 
at funeral of her husband, who died 
of serpent bite (Lue and Ershel 
Blankenship, Ray's mother and step- 
father, beside her). Photograph 
1991 by Bill Snead. 



disregard a bite. Lydia Elkins Hollins, whose mother 
died from a serpent bite in a religious service, wrote 
to me: "How's everything going? Everyone here 
seems to be fine — exception of me being copper- 
head bit — I got bit 10-13-85 [the previous week] — 
and my finger is still pretty bad — that's why the 
writing is so sloppy in this note — I'm left handed 
and it got me on the middle finger close to the 
fingernail — How's the weather there? It's damp & 
cool here. ..." 

Can serpents control the amounts 
of venom they release? 

According to F. E. Russell, "Snakes rarely, if ever, 
eject the full contents of their glands. The amount 
of venom injected in the process of obtaining food 
appears to be related to the size of the prey. In the 
case of bites on humans, or in situations where the 
snake strikes in quick defense, the amount of venom 
may vary from 0-90% of the gland content" ("The 
Clinical Problem" 985). 

Do bitten individuals build up an 
immunity to the venom? 

It would seem from clinical studies that repeated 
bites of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water mocca- 



sins do not produce immunity. Whereas it is theo- 
retically possible that humans could produce a per- 
manent immunity, increased doses of venom at fre- 
quent intervals would probably be necessary. Any 
protective level of immunity seems to dissipate rap- 
idly, and the short period of incubation for venom 
(2 to 15 minutes in contrast to 14 to 21 days for 
infectious diseases) is not conducive to the pro- 
duction of antibodies (Parrish and Pollard 
284-85). Rather than producing immunity, re- 
peated bites may in fact produce in some persons 
an "allergy to snake venoms which may make sub- 
sequent bites more dangerous" (285). 

How many serpent handlers have 
died from serpent bites? 

Precise data are not available because of the na- 
ture of the independence of the churches involved, 
the illegality of the practice in many cases, the 
lack of early statistics, and the difficulty of collect- 
ing widespread newspaper reports. Steven Kane 
reportedly documents 69 deaths through April 1990 
(White B4). Added to that list would be Jimmy Ray 
Williams, Jr., who died on 1 3 July 1991, 18 years af- 
ter the death of his father by strychnine; and Ray 
Johnson, who died 2 December 1991. 



1 62 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Do they milk the serpents of the venom 
before handling them? 

Absolutely not. Handling serpents for sign-follow- 
ing believers has no meaning if it is not potentially 
dangerous. Not only do they not tamper with them 
in any way, it is a common practice to handle any 
serpents brought to them by others. 

Does the body temperature of the 
anointed individual placate the serpent 
and retard its biting? 

Probably not, but nobody knows for certain. 
Scientific documentation of human body tempera- 
ture during anointment and of the effect of any 
difference that it might have on the serpent is 
nonexistent. Rattlesnakes and other pit-vipers 
have organs on the sides of their heads to locate prey; 
these organs are extremely sensitive to "detecting 
differences of fractions of a degree centigrade in 
the environment" (Morris and Morris 195). This 
sensitivity to temperature would enhance aware- 
ness of the presence of warm-blooded objects, but 
it does not seem to explain the low number of 
bites. The handlers are not always anointed; some 
handle serpents by faith rather than in any trance- 
like state. There are other conditions in which be- 
lievers are exposed where body temperature would 
not be a vital factor, e.g., reaching for a serpent, 
having serpents draped around their bodies or 
thrown to them. Since serpents are "particularly sen- 
sitive to tactile stimuli" (Moms and Moms 196), one 
might speculate on the effect of various stimuli — 
e.g., being held, stroked, petted, twirled, wrapped, 
caught, stepped upon, and dropped. 



Why are serpent handlers not bitten 
more often than they are? 

The percentage of times they handle serpents with 
impunity is very high, although there is no statis- 
tical data comparing bites of handlers who are be- 
lievers and those who are not. There may be many 
factors at work determining whether handlers are 
bitten. One authority alludes to suggestions by 
other writers — "Hypnotism, neurogenic reflexes, 
and catalepsy" — but adds: "I feel their importance 
is minimal. . . . One might consider the possibility 
that snakes can detect fright in a person, either by 
proprioception [reception by the snake's brain of 
stimuli produced within the serpent relative to its 
body] or by olfaction. If this were possible, one 
might speculate that snakes could detect changes 
associated with fear or fright or, conversely, in 
people who were handling them" (Russell, Snake 
Venom Poisoning 529-30). 

Weston La Barre, in noting a discussion of 
members of the Duke University Department of 
Parapsychology with one serpent handler, states: 
"The handling of snakes with impunity is obvi- 
ously a potential instance of the 'PK phenom- 
enon,' psychokinesis, or 'the power of mind over 
matter'" ("The Snake-Handling Cult" 332). Lisa 
Alther makes reference to this conclusion in an 
interview with Pastor Liston Pack and adds: "It 
strikes me that they're basically saying the same 
thing you are: that there's a force available — PK 
to them, the power of the Lord to you — to those 
who know how to use it" ("They Shall Take Up 
Serpents" 35). 



Appendix D. Some Questions • 163 




One of the various substances drunk in accordance with the scripture, "if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not 
hurt them," Mark 16:18. Photograph 1983 by the author. 



The Poison 

Do they actually drink strychnine 
and other poisons? 

Unquestionably. Proof of the validity of the claim 
of drinking "the deadly thing" is evident in the re- 
ports of fatalities such as that of Jimmy Williams 
and Buford Pack by strychnine poisoning at the 
Carson Springs Holiness Church of God in Jesus 
Name in April 1973. In the November preceding 
these deaths, Williams had taken carbon tetrachlo- 
ride during a religious service, and lye mixed with 
water was also consumed at the Carson Springs 
church. Two jars of liquid from which Charles Prince 
drank at another Carson Springs service in 1983 
were willingly submitted by Prince, who, along with 
the pastor, was glad to have its lethality documented. 
The toxicologist's report revealed a strychnine con- 
centration of 249.7 and 399.6 micrograms per mil- 



liliter. A lethal dose of these samples in compari- 
son with recorded data would probably be 6 to 7 
ounces and 4 to 5 ounces, respectively, although 
poisoning in humans has been reported with one 
fourth that amount (Slater 524). Based on a 
videotape of the jars prior to the service, approxi- 
mately 1.5 to 3 ounces of the liquids were con- 
sumed (perhaps on the margin of a lethal dose) 
with no apparent ill results. In 1985 Prince died 
following a religious service during which he drank 
poison; the autopsy report stated: "PROXIMATE 
CAUSE OF DEATH: Rattlesnake venom reaction 
and/or strychnine ingestion." 

What are the effects of strychnine poisoning? 

Strychnine acts as a stimulant to the spine and 
produces convulsions. A human absorbs strych- 
nine quickly when it is consumed orally and, with 
sufficient doses, undergoes a convulsion usually 



J 64 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



within fifteen to forty-five minutes (though it may 
be delayed for several hours) which lasts from one 
to two minutes. "The patient is fully conscious and 
suffers exquisite pain from the muscle cramps. . . . 
Further convulsions may occur, particularly after 
tactile or auditory stimulation. Death . . . usually 
occurs after two to five convulsions" (Slater 524)- 

Does one build up an immunity to strychnine? 

Apparently not. Strychnine is seemingly disposed 
of by the body rather quickly: "Animal experiments 
have shown that strychnine is disposed of at the 
rate of about one convulsive dose per hour, but 
with considerable species and sex differences" (Slater 
524). In certain animals, 20 percent of the con- 
vulsive dose was injected every fifteen minutes for 
three hours without causing convulsions, and 50 
percent of the convulsive dose was administered 
daily for long periods without either accumulation 
or tolerance (524). One might infer that a lethal 
dose consumed by a person in small portions over 
a period of hours would not be fatal, but such an 
inference would be highly speculative since it is 
not based on human data. 

How many have died by drinking 
"the deadly thing"? 

The first record seems to be of V. A. Bishop who, 
during a revival at Trinity, Texas, in 1921, drank 
"seven grains of strychnine or arsenic ... in an 
ounce of water" (Evangel 7 May 1921: 1). There are 
some half-dozen cases reported, but as in deaths by 
serpent bites, they are difficult to document be- 
cause of a number of circumstances. For example, 
Charles Prince's death, as previously cited, is at- 
tributed to a combination of serpent venom and/ 
or strychnine. There are no comparative results of 



poison ingestion by sign followers and non- 
"anointed" persons. 

The Fire 

Are there naturalistic explanations 

for believers not being burned by fire or heat? 

There are a number of documented incidents of 
individuals' contacting fire and not being burned, 
the "fire walk" being the best-known. The London 
Council for Psychical Investigation undertook in 
1935 and 1936 to examine two series of fire walks 
held under controlled conditions at Surrey, 
England. In the first series of tests the surface tem- 
perature of the fire pit was 430 degrees Celsius 
(806 degrees Fahrenheit), the interior temperature 
1400 C (2552 F); in the second series, the surface 
temperature was over 500 degrees C (932 degrees 
F). Two individuals walked, claiming faith as the 
reason for being unharmed. The official report 
concluded: "fire walking is a gymnastic feat oper- 
ating on this principle: a limited number of quick 
and even steps on a poor conductor of heat does 
not result in burning of the flesh" (Feinberg 75). 
There were other reports published by individual 
scientists "in general agreeing that fire walking can 
be explained in terms of certain physical facts, but 
they did not agree on precisely what those physi- 
cal facts were" (74). Other explanations include 
the psychological and the religious. One account 
of fire walking in Ceylon reported eighty persons 
walking a twenty-by-six-foot pit, twelve of whom 
were hospitalized for burns and one of whom died. 
"These people, the devout believer will tell you, 
lacked either faith or preparation" (76). 

A number of other studies analyze the effect 
of hypnosis relative to burns. From these, Steven 



Appendix D . Some Questions • J 65 




Sign on the outside of 
church building 
constructed by Pastor 
Saylor and his four sons, 
adjoining pastor's home. 
Photograph 1989 by 
Fred Brown. 



Kane concludes: "Seeing that the beliefs of sub- 
jects in hypnotic ttance can influence their neural 
activity in such a way as to augment or prevent 
damage in reaction to noxious stimuli — and even 
to produce damage in the complete absence of such 
stimulation — I think it not unreasonable to sug- 
gest that the entranced fire handlers' belief in their 
own invulnerability mobilizes the same protective 
nervous system process" ("Holiness Ritual Fire Han- 
dling" 382). Of course, even a clinical description 
(much less an explanation) of the effects of han- 
dling fire is limited without controlled testing. Avail- 
able clinical studies are not adequate to explain 
the phenomenal reports of believers who have the 
"gift of fire" (see Berthold Schwarz). 

The Present and Future State 

How many serpent handlers are there! 

Any accounting is difficult due to the autonomy of 
the churches and the divisions in doctrine; then, 
too, some congregations are rather secretive. Ser- 
pent handlers themselves do not know all the 



preachers and churches even in their own region. 
Certain groups know each other and travel long 
distances to attend each other's services, home- 
comings, and revivals. Kingston, Georgia, mem- 
bers travel to Jolo, West Virginia; Jolo and 
Sneedville, Tennessee, members go to Kentucky; 
the pastor of Carson Springs, Tennessee (who does 
not know the group in Sneedville), has gone north 
to Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, as well as all over 
the South; leaders of the church in Fort Wayne, 
Indiana, go back home to Straight Creek, Ken- 
tucky. But serpent handlers do not have a clear 
perspective of the total body of sign followers. In 
1987 Steven Kane estimated some two thousand 
members of "Holiness snake-handling churches in 
the South and Midwest" ("Appalachian Snake Han- 
dlers" 118); Mary Lee Daugherty reportedly esti- 
mated in 1983 "about 1,000 members of serpent- 
handling sects in West Virginia" alone ( Watterlond 
51). Out of these church members, a reasonable 
estimate might be several hundred actual handlers, 
but there is a considerable ebb and flow in indi- 
viduals as well as churches that practice serpent 
handling. 



166 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



Perry Bettis, serpent 
handler and native of 
the area where serpent 
handling emerged in 
Tennessee, who handled 
serpents for over forty 
years before his death 
by natural causes in 
1991. Photograph 1989 
h\ the author. 




Are serpents handled by believers presendy 
in the Grasshopper Valley area, where the 
practice may have begun? 

Preacher Perry Bettis was a follower of the signs 
for some thirty years until his death on 1 1 Decem- 
ber 1991. He handled serpents even in states where 
it is illegal. But for several years (c. 1984-85) he did 
not handle serpents in services held on his prop- 
erty in Birchwood, Tennessee, at the Church of 
Jesus Christ With Signs Following — except once 
or twice a year — or anywhere else in the Grasshop- 
per Valley area. The reason he gave for the ab- 
sence of handling in the valley is the lack of be- 
lief. He said that, if people believed as they once 
did, serpents would still be handled regularly in 
spite of the rigid law enforcement. He is the last 
person to be bitten by a serpent in a religious ser- 
vice in the Dolly Pond area. The bite — the only 
one he ever received — occurred around 1985 and 
caused two fingers on his right hand to become 
numb. 



Are African Americans involved? 

Yes. The first pastor of the Jolo church, Bishop W. 
L. Dickerson, was African American. He handled 
serpents, and there are a few African Americans 
who attend other serpent-handling churches and 
who do handle serpents. Kenneth Ambrose found 
among the serpent-handling churches he studied 
that there was a strong belief, supported by their 
actions as well as their sermons, in people of all 
races being accepted into their congregations; fur- 
thermore, this attitude was stronger than that in- 
dicated in an earlier study of religious beliefs in 
Southern Appalachia not restricted to serpent 
handlers ("Survey of the Snake-Handling Cult of 
West Virginia" 94). 

Are children involved in haiviling serpents? 

Bud Gregg of N4orristown, Tennessee, is probably 
representative of sign followers when he says: 



Appendix D. Some Questions • 167 




A child joining in the dancing at the Hi-Way Holiness Church of God, Fort Wayne, Indiana. 
Photograph 1989 by Fred Brown. 



1 68 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



We don't let children handle serpents here at the 
House of Prayer in Jesus Name. In fact, my chil- 
dren, my own children, 1 would encourage them 
not to he hasty in moving. I helieve a man or a 
woman or a young man or woman ought to really 
be established in the faith, in mind, in heart, in 
soul — get all the foolishness out of their life — 
before they begin to take part in the signs of the 
Gospel. The youngest person we've got here, I 
would guess would be about twenty-five years old. 
So they are pretty well, they know what they're 
doing, they've sort of established in the thing, and 
they know what the serpent bite can do, what the 
law is, and they also know who God is, and they'd 
rather obey God than man. 

There is always the question of the "age of ac- 
countability," or how old children should be be- 
fore they are considered fully responsible to obey 
the gospel, including the admonition to "follow 
the signs." The response of believers to that ques- 
tion varies. If minors are saved and receive the gift 
of the Holy Spirit, then it is a serious problem for 
sign followers to deny them participation in the 
signs — and some are not denied. For example, 
Arnold Saylor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, an adult 
son of a sign follower, has handled serpents since 
he was nine years old. There are quite a few early 
reports as well as recent ones of children handling 
serpents. 

Clyde Ricker, at a service at the Holiness 
Church of God near Lebanon, Virginia, is reported 
as offering an explanation. "When children — such 
as the nine-year-old girl — handle snakes, Ricker 
says it is not because the child has been anointed 
as such, but because an anointed adult has been 
directed to hand the reptile to the child" (Howard 
Taylor CI). 

Serpent handling by mothers with babies in 



their arms or by others near babies is also reported: 
"In front of a young mother who sat holding a baby 
in her lap, he [one of the handlers] paused and 
gleefully held the reptile extended before the baby's 
eyes. As he laughed and the mother smiled, the 
baby gravely reached out and touched the snake" 
(Kerman, "Rattlesnake Religion," Eve's 97). 

Among handlers, there seems now to be more 
concern regarding the endangerment of children, 
and the common procedure is that only respon- 
sible, consenting adults are allowed in close con- 
tact with the serpents. 

Is the practice presently in decline! 

Apparently so. According to personal testimony of 
handlers, their numbers are not nearly as great as 
they once were, even twenty years ago. Compari- 
son is difficult since past accounts of numbers are 
scantier than present ones; and often news reports 
have been of incredulous spectators, e.g., three thou- 
sand spectators at Stone Creek, Virginia, at the me- 
morial service of John Hensley ("They Shall Take 
Up Serpents," Newsweek 88), and twenty-five hun- 
dred at Lewis Ford's funeral in Tennessee 
(Pennington, "Ford, Rattler's Victim" 1). Also, re- 
ports of serpent-handling congregations, past and 
present, do not usually distinguish between church 
members and those who actually handle the ser- 
pents. In some of the congregations there is no no- 
ticeable decrease in activity, as in Jolo, West Vir- 
ginia; but even there speculation arises about the 
sustained vitality after the three or four principal 
handlers are gone. Currently, there are more oral 
reports of churches where serpents are no longer 
handled than of those where the practice has been 
taken up. 



Appendix D . Some Questions • 169 



Will the practice persist? 

Probably for some time. It would seem that serpent 
handling will decrease as the communities are in- 
creasingly influenced by secularism and as serpent- 
handling preachers and churches are affected by 
an academic approach to scriptural exegesis and 
more liberal religious and cultural views. The va- 
lidity of this hypothesis is substantiated by the ex- 
clusion of serpent handling through some of these 
influences within the Church of God, where ser- 
pent handling was once active. As Mickey Crews 
observes: "Like other new religious groups, this 
Holiness-Pentecostal sect developed some eccen- 
tric practices in its early years. These created an 
unfavorable public image. ... As the Church of 
God began its rise into mainstream conservative 
evangelicalism, the organization discarded many of 
these unusual practices" (91). 

A valuable insight into a different response of 
contemporary Pentecostals, particularly younger 
ones, is provided by a student's paper in one of Dr. 
Harold Hunter's religion classes at the Church of 
God School of Theology: 

What do we as pentecostals "make of all this?" I 
think many probably feel that these persons are 
ignorant and "don't really know any better." Some 
are too scared to think about it, and others prob- 
ably feel they waste their time if they think about 
it. As for me, I am not exactly sure how to resolve 
the issue. Whereas many wouldn't address it as an 
(peripheral) issue, I feel that we as pentecostals 
need to deal with it. Many pentecostals have seen 
or heard about people hugging pot-bellied stoves 
or handling red hot coals and more or less view it 
in a positive light — as a providential act of protec- 
tion. Is snake handling any different? Souls have 
repented as a result of both. (Stansky 9) 



Even though for at least twenty years there 
have been indications of change in the religious 
views of younger members of serpent-handling 
churches (Ambrose, "Survey of the Snake-Han- 
dling Cult of West Virginia" 95), new recruits to 
the practice include young people from outside as 
well as within the fold. 

The formal education level of these churches 
and especially of their preachers will be critical. At 
present that level is generally low. Some of the 
old-time preachers are illiterate, although it should 
be noted that they are not commonly ignorant or 
inarticulate. The younger members reflect in- 
creased state educational regulations, and some 
have attended college. The general lack of formal 
education, however, is particularly evident in mat- 
ters of language, textual exegesis, and translation. 
If serpent handlers were trained in these areas, 
they would doubtless take different approaches to 
interpreting scripture. For example, in the key 
text, Mark 16:18, besides having a clearer under- 
standing of the problem of its textual authentic- 
ity, they would be aware of the implications of the 
original Greek language and of exegetical com- 
parison. Instead of summarily reading "They shall 
take up serpents" as meaning "inevitable" or "com- 
pulsory" actions to be taken by believers, they 
might evaluate other interpretations, such as the 
one by George B. Horton. He indicates that the 
English translation "They shall take up" is derived 
from one Greek word that 

appears 102 times in the New Testament and is 
variously translated "take up, remove, take away, 
destroy, put away, do away with, kill." . . . There is 
only one instance in the New Testament in which 
the exact verb form ot the Greek work [sic] airo is 



1 70 • Serpent -Handling Believers 




Liston Pack's arms across his Bible. Photograph by Mike DuBose. 



used. In that passage (John 11:48), the identical 
word is translated "take away." A reading of the 
passage reveals the conditional structure that is 
intended. It is readily seen that the entire passage 
in Mark 16 is also conditional and is a promise of 
protection rather than a command to perform. 
(Cross 20) 

What are some of the factors reinforcing 
the survival of the practice! 

One factor, as Steven Kane suggests, is kinship: "In 
a number of families snake handling has been car- 
ried on for three generations or more. Ties of kin- 
ship have been a factor of crucial importance in 



both the diffusion and the persistence of the snake- 
handling faith" ("Snake Handlers" 699). 

There are also factors at work within the ser- 
vices that reinforce the survival. These "mecha- 
nisms" or means of building commitment, as set 
forth by Kenneth Ambrose, involve "sacrifices rang- 
ing from minor ones of dress to the ultimate sacri- 
fice of life," investment such as time (twelve to 
fifteen hours per week in church and great distances 
traveled), separation from and renunciation of the 
"outside world as evil and wicked," communion 
and attachment with the members of the church, 
especially in practicing the signs, and "moral" com- 



Appendix D . Some Questions • 171 





£~-W*4fP 



Manifesting Luke 10:19: "Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power 
of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you." Photograph of Charles Prince 1983 at Carson Springs. 



mitment. Moral commitment is manifested in (1) 
the values of the church determining the norms of 
behavior for the individual and being expressed in 
confessions and mutual criticisms, (2) sanctions of 
the group for deviant behavior (for example, through 
prayers and the differentiation of levels of spiritu- 
ality), and (3) transcendence "seen in the awe of 
the ritual, the power and authority of the leaders 
within the group, the conversion experiences, and 
the tests of faith" ("A Serpent-Handling Church" 
58-59, 90-92). All of these factors inherent in the 
serpent-handling services — besides fulfilling the 
needs of the individuals — build commitment to 
the church, which is vital to the survival of its 
practices. 



The Key Scriptures 

Why do serpent handlers literally follow 
Mark 16:17-18 and not other scriptures! 

From their point of view, they do follow all the 
scriptures literally; whether they actually do is open 
to debate. Serpent handler Byron Crawford told 
one newsman: "If Jesus said, 'They shall wrestle 
grizzly bears,' I would wrestle a grizzly bear; I'd go 
catch me one and try to wrestle me a grizzly bear if 
Jesus said to" ("ABC News"). 

What scriptures other than Mark 1 6 
refer to serpent handling? 

Exod. 4:3-4 And he said, Cast it on the ground. And 
he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and 
Moses fled from before it. And the Lord said unto 



172 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




"Boots" Parker handles fire at the Dolley Pond Church behind the rope that separated spectators from participants. 
Photograph c. 1945 by J. C. Collins, identification by Flora Bettis. 



Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. 
And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it 
became a rod in his hand. 

Job 26: 13 By his spirit he hath garnished the 
heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent. 

Eccles. 10:8 He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; 
and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him. 

Luke 10:19 Behold, I give unto you power to tread 
on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of 
the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. 

John 20:30-3 1 And many other signs truly did Jesus 
in the presence of his disciples, which are not written 
in this book; But these are written, that ye might 



believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and 
that believing ye might have life through his name. 

Acts 2:43 And fear came upon every soul: and many 
wonders and signs were done by the apostles. 

Acts 5:12 And by the hands of the apostles were 
many signs and wonders wrought among the people. 

Acts 28:3-5 But when Paul had gathered a bundle of 
sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper 
out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when 
the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his 
hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man 
is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, 
yet vengeance suftereth not to live. And he shook off 
the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. 



Appendix D. Some Questions • 173 



1 Cor. 10:9 Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of 
them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. 

What scriptures mention handling fire? 

Isa. 43:2 ... when thou walkest through the fire, 
thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame 
kindle upon thee. 

Dan. 3:20-27 And he commanded the most mighty 
men that were in his army to bind Shadrach, 
Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the 
burning fiery furnace. . . . And the princes, governors, 
and captains, and the king's counsellers, being 
gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies 
the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head 
singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell 
of fire had passed on them. 

Heb. 1 1:33-34 Who through faith . . . Quenched the 
violence of fire. 

1 Pet. 1:7 That the trial of your faith, being much 
more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be 
tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour 
and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ. 

What is the scripture for the nine spiritual gifts? 

1 Cor. 12:8-10 For to one is given by the Spirit the 
word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by 
the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; 
to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To 
another the working ot miracles; to another prophecy; 
to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds 
of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues. 

The Customs 

How restrictive is the ascetic 
lifestyle of serpent handlers? 

Some think that growing long sideburns and even 
wearing ties are inappropriate because these and 



similar acts of personal conduct indicate pride and 
worldliness. This extremely conservative attitude 
toward personal appearance and conduct is char- 
acteristic of other Pentecostal Holiness people, but 
it has many variables. One female serpent handler 
does not wear jewelry but feels a watch is justified 
by its being "necessary." On the other hand, there 
are congregations where for some members (and 
in other cases for many) the personal appearance 
is little or no different from what one would find 
in any number of rural churches — suits for men, 
conventional heels and dresses and coiffures for 
women. Some serpent handlers have televisions 
and watch commercial programs or allow their 
children to watch cartoons; some watch only care- 
fully selected programs; others have camcorders 
and watch only tapes of religious services, mostly 
serpent-handling ones such as homecomings and 
revivals. Some serpent handlers use tobacco, drink 
caffeine and — in at least one case — alcoholic bev- 
erages, referring to the text, "whatsoever thing 
from without entereth into the man, it cannot de- 
file him; . . . That which cometh out of the man, 
that defileth the man" (Mark 7:18, 20). 

The attitudes toward material things also vary, 
but there seems to he a distinction made between 
"worldliness" and "materialism," the former lead- 
ing to fleshly sins or personal exaltation, the latter 
not necessarily being evil. For example, the park- 
ing lots — in some cases filled with late-model non- 
economy cars, vans, RVs, and trucks — are not dis- 
similar to those of other local churches. One 
serpent handler in Georgia, a wealthy contractor 
who drives a Cadillac, as does his wife, preaches 
that the Lord makes prosperous those who give to 
His work. On one occasion this preacher quoted 
as biblical substantiation: "The Lord is my Shep- 



I 74 • Serpent-Harulling Believers 




]N0 GOSSIP <*•""■?*> 

|NO TALEBEARING^,^ 
NO LYING (Co/. yDC&M 

NO BACKBITTING^I 
NO BAD LANGUAGE 

MLblAJLOTO 0*** 






WO TOBACCO USERS 
OF ANYKIND.MEN 
WITH LONG HAIR.MIJS* 
TACH.OR BEARD,DR|£ 
I: S ABOVE KNEE.S/co* 

tl ftrfitip*** ^1 ULr j_T 




Pulpit restrictions at the Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo. Photograph 1985 by Mike DuBose 



herd and I shall not want." As additional proof he 
offered an illustration: "There's a sister here today 
walked out one day to give somebody twenty dol- 
lars. She had twenty dollars in one hand. She said 
before she passed that twenty, somebody had given 
her a hundred. She had a hundred in the other 
hand — give that twenty away and a hundred in 
the other hand. Tell me, you can't outgive God. 
You can't outgive God." The preacher included a 
personal experience just two days before of pick- 
ing up a man from the side of the road who had 
not eaten in days and taking him to get something 
to eat before seeing that the man had a ride to his 
destination in Alabama. Continuing his story, he 
related how he then drove on home, where he was 
met by two men who owed him some money, 
"only 37,000 dollars," and they wrote him a check 
for the money, a check he had in his pocket at the 
time. He concluded, "You got to be good to God, 
and God'll be good to you." 

In regard to the general austerity of Holiness 



people, Anton Boisen observes: "It is important to 
recognize that the doctrine of holiness, which is 
common to all these groups, is primarily a matter 
of religious experience. These people are 
commonly austere in their piety. They forbid 
card-playing, dancing, theatre-going and the like, 
but they are not interested in virtue for its own 
sake. . . . Their austerity is either just a means to- 
ward obtaining and keeping that experience or 
else an expression of their faith in the potency of 
the experience" (187). For the most part, it seems 
that handlers are more interested in living godly, 
pure lives than in self-denial of physical comforts. 

What are the scriptures cited relating to 
restrictions in dress? 

Deut. 22:5 The woman shall not wear that which 
pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a 
woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination 
unto the Lord thy God. 

Deut. 22:11 Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers 
sorts, as of woollen and linen together. 



Appendix D. Some Questions • 175 



1 Cor. 3:16-17 Know ye not that ye are the temple 
of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If 
any man defile the temple of God, him shall God 
destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple 
ye are. 

1 Cor. 6:19 What? know ye not that your body is the 
temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye 
have of God, and ye are not your own? 

1 Cor. 1 1:5, 7, 14-15 But every woman that prayeth 
or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth 
her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. 
. . . For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, 
forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: hut the 
woman is the glory of the man. . . . Doth not even 
nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it 
is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it 
is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a 
covering. 

1 Tim. 2:9-10 In like manner also, that women adorn 
themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness 
and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, 
or costly array; But (which becometh women profess- 
ing godliness) with good works. 

Is there a biblical basis for the 
custom of greeting with a kiss? 

This practice of greeting, sometimes on the mouth, 
is based on biblical statements, such as "Greet one 
another with an holy kiss" (2 Cor. 13:12). This cus- 
tom is not restricted to serpent-handling churches. 
Generally individuals do not kiss members of the 
opposite sex, but in congregations where members 
do, such as the one at Scrabble Creek, Kentucky, 
the concept is to kiss one another as members of 
the family of God in purity and in the Spirit with- 
out lust (Holliday 40). One minister preaches: '"If 
you feel any evil over greeting some woman any 
more than you would some man, the devil is in you 
somewhere'" (Dickinson and Benziger 141). 



Do the services contain a degree of exhibitionism , 
showmanship, and publicity seeking? 

Not only charlatans but people who follow a di- 
vine mission may love public performance. Re- 
gardless of the degree of showmanship manifested 
by various handlers, however, one does not get to 
know them and think that the ritual is simply a 
performance. The response of serpent handlers to- 
ward publicity varies greatly. Some welcome me- 
dia exposure, if it is fair. They feel that the Second 
Coming of Christ will not occur until the gospel is 
preached to all the world and that the mass media 
provide the quickest way to accomplish this goal. 
Some pastors welcome outsiders and even invite 
them to testify. Some do not want anyone coming 
to the service with a notepad, camera, or tape re- 
corder — in part because of their having had bad 
experiences previously with the press and in part 
because of not wanting the spirit of the meeting 
disturbed. 

Serpent handlers are also aware of the ego prob- 
lems that the presence of the media can bring out 
in individuals, and they are forthright in discuss- 
ing the matter. Pastor Liston Pack says about one 
of the Homecomings at Carson Springs: "I saw lots 
of phony shoutin' before the mike on the camera 
that I don't think should have been done. I'm not 
the judge, but the Holy Ghost or the Spirit of God 
can detect the right spirit, and it seemed like some 
people liked to put on just a little extra motion due 
to they were on camera." Although the influence 
of outside agents is not an ethical consideration of 
most people, it has grave moral implications. How 
much do the media and spectators adversely affect 
the serpent handlers; do they in a sense corrupt 
them, infect them with pride, turn their heads? 
When someone dies from being bitten or drinking 



1 76 • Serpent-Handling Believers 




Some of the thirty to forty persons, mostly young families, 
God. Photograph 1989 by Fred Brown. 

poison, the question of the effect of outsiders be- 
comes even more serious. How guilty of complic- 
ity are journalists, television programmers, video 
and film makers, writers, academics, and specta- 
tors? 

What about antics such as running around 
during the services, standing up on chairs, 
etc. — is all that for show? 

Many of these activities are rhetorical styles remi- 
niscent of revivalists early in this century and even 
more so in the nineteenth century. These styles 
would appear in some cases to be survivals of oral 
tradition. Along with other stylized mannerisms, 
such as certain movements of different parts of the 
body (e.g., head, arms, torso, and feet), they might 



attending this service of the Hi-Way Holiness Church of 

well be studied as traditional: learned by demon- 
stration, accepted by a particular group, and sus- 
tained over a period of time. They are not tradi- 
tions unique to serpent handlers, however. 

Are not the services really a 
form of entertainment? 

The austerity of Holiness conduct restricts a num- 
ber of social activities. As folklorist Ellen Stekert 
points out: "Gatherings where songs were sung, 
dances performed, tales were told, and jokes and 
riddles were related, were often gatherings where 
social behavior was such as to offend the moral 
code of the new religion"; yet the services provided 
an acceptable context in which many of these ear- 
lier rejected traditions could continue (320). The 



Appendix D. Some Questions • 177 




Tim McCoy dancing with visitor Willard Vance from Kentucky during services at Jolo. Photograph 
1991 by Bill Snead. 



social significance of the church service was cer- 
tainly more important when it was one of a very 
few public activities available. Ola White, for ex- 
ample, remembers as a girl going to the Dolley Pond 
services when it was "packed in there till there 
wasn't even room to put another one, outside and 
inside and everywhere." She says people were even 
sitting on the ceiling joists, but she adds: "You got 
to look at it this away. They's just a house here and 
there then, and that was the main thing was a- 
goin' on in this community." Presently, when there 
are multiple social and entertainment opportuni- 
ties, including movie rentals and television, there 
is less of a social vacuum, but serpent-handling ser- 
vices do continue. 

It may very well be that the spontaneity of the 



service is more rewarding to the congregations than 
the handling itself, as suggested by one study: "one 
would expect the serpent handler to value his church 
and its religious services (which assign such an im- 
portant role to spontaneous expression in testi- 
mony, singing, and dancing) as more generally pro- 
viding a variety of opportunities for pleasurable, 
exciting, and significant emotional experiences" 
than "the occasional enactment of the serpent- 
handling ritual by a few members" (Tellegen 241 ). 

Can't these services be seen simply as an 
activity in which people participate in order to 
purge themselves emotionally , to experience a 
catharsis of feelings, tensions, and stresses? 

Certainly the services provide emotional release. 



Bruce Helton, 
pastor from 
Evarts, Kentucky, 
at a meeting in 
Baxter. 

Photograph 1983 
by Mike DuBose. 




Appendix D . Some Questions • 179 



As Charles Braden observes, a vital part of the at- 
traction of groups such as these is that they pro- 
vide a release that "many people need by tempera- 
ment and do not find in the rather formal liturgical 
services of the 'regular' churches." Part of the re- 
lease comes through the music, "which eases at 
least for a time the inner strains to which men and 
women are subject. Whether this is the best way 
of liberating tensions may be a matter of debate. 
That it does liberate them can scarcely be disputed." 
Another benefit of the emotional experience may 
be that it is a unifying force: "by reason of sharing 
together in the emotional experiences common to 
the group the members are knit into a closer, more 
personal fellowship than that usually found in the 
'regular' churches" ("Churches of the Dispossessed" 
109-10). 

Is the custom of following 
the signs basically fatalistic! 

There is certainly the belief that all things are con- 
trolled by the power of God (Matt. 28:18). Han- 



dlers believe that their prayers will be answered 
(Mark 1 1:24), but they accept that God's ways are 
not man's ways (Isa. 55:8), and they pray that God's 
will be done (Matt. 6:10), assured that "all things 
work together for good to them that love God" 
(Rom. 8:28). They are not fatalists; they fervently 
pray to God, believing that they can effect change, 
but they reconcile themselves to God's will. 

Aren't their customs, after all is said 
and done, basically aberrant behavior? 

If the term aberrant is used to mean that the prac- 
tice departs significantly from mainstream contem- 
porary American religious ritual, then the answer 
would be yes. But it is not aberrant behavior if 
viewed within the context of American religious 
history. As anthropologist James Birckhead states: 
"to place serpent-handling into its larger theologi- 
cal contexts ... it is not viewed as isolated, aber- 
rant, or bizarre, but rather as an outgrowth of a 
long-standing religious emphasis" ("Toward the Cre- 
ation of a Community of Saints" 32). 




References 



Unless otherwise attributed, all quotations in the 
text are to interviews conducted by the author. 
Tapes of these interviews and other materials not 
in the bibliography to which reference is made are 
available in the Thomas G. Burton Collection in 
the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State 
University. 



Archives 

The Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State 
University hold a significant collection of research 
materials on religious serpent handling. Primary 
sources include some one hundred audio tapes and 
fifty video tapes. Audio tapes are on reel-to-reel or 
cassette format; video tapes are on VHS or 3/4" 
U-Matic format. These tapes document church ser- 
vices and homecomings as well as ministers' and 
other church members' views on serpent handling 
and related phenomena. Among the churches docu- 
mented are those in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, 
North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West 
Virginia. The tapes are contained in the Broadside 
Television Collection, Thomas G. Burton Collec- 
tion, Burton-Headley Collection, Burton-Manning 
Collection, and Charles Gunter, Jr., Collection. 

Secondary sources such as books, dissertations, 
and vertical-file materials (mainly copies of articles 
from magazines, journals, and newspapers) are in- 
cluded in the archives. The archives also hold black- 
and-white and color photographic negatives and 
prints taken during church services and homecom- 
ings. These prints are contained in the Thomas 
Burton Collection, the J. B. Collins Photographs, 
and the Kenneth Murray Photographs. 



J 82 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



The following list ranges from scholarly stud- 
ies to fiction and tabloid journalism, reflecting the 
wide and varied reactions to this practice. Items 
listed with "Burton Collection" are in the Archives 
of Appalachia. 

Printed Sources 

Abbott, Bill. "Man Bitten by Preacher's Snake Dies." 

Tampa Morning Tribune 5 May 1936: 1, 6. 
Abell, Troy. Better Felt Than Said. Waco, Tex.: 

Markham Press, 1982. 
. "The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in 

Southern Appalachia." Diss. Purdue Univ., 1974- 

UMIDDJ75-17142. 
"Aid Refused on Snake Bite." Newspaper article, n.d. 

Burton Collection. 
"Ain't It the Truth." Louisville Courier-journal 26 Oct. 

1947, magazine sec: 4. 
"Alabama Judge Fines 3 for Snake Handling." Chatta- 
nooga Times 26 July 1955: 3, 11. 
Aldridge, Larry. "Sunday's Scene at Snakehandling 

Service." Greenei'ille (Tenn.) Sun 4 July 1973: 16. 
. "Venomous Testimony." Knoxville journal 7 

July 1980: 1. 
"All Depends on the Devil." Daily Times (Chatta- 
nooga) 23 Sept. 1914:9. 
Alland, Alexander. "Possession in a Revivalist Negro 

Church." journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 

1 (1962): 204-13. 
Allen, Zack. "Snakehandler Dies From Rattler Bite." 

Asheville Times 19 Aug. 1985: 1. 
Alther, Lisa. Kinflicks. New York: Random, 1976. 

369-74. 
. "They Shall Take Up Serpents." New York 

Times Magazine 6 June 1976: 18-35. 
Ambrose, Kenneth Paul. "A Serpent-Handling 

Church in a Midwestern City." Diss., Ohio State 

Univ., 1978. UMI 7902066. 



— . "Survey of the Snake-Handling Cult of West 

Virginia." Master's thesis, Marshall Univ., 1970. 
"Americana." Time 10 Mar. 1947: 22-23. 
Anderson, Lee. "County Group Fined $50 Each For 

Offenses." Chattanooga News-Free Press 1 1 Feb. 

1948: 1. 
Anderson, Robert M. Vision of the Disinherited. New 

York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979. 
"Any Deadly Thing." Time 8 Sept. 1947: 28. 
"Appalachians Worship Like Brazilians" The Daily 

Times (Knoxville) 28 Oct. 1985: 11. 
Ardery, Julia S., ed. Welcome the Traveler Home: jim 

Garland's Story of the Kentucky Mountains. Lexing- 
ton: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983. 
Armer, Cathy. "The Law Puts The Bite On Snake 

Handlers: One Snake Is Killed; Others Are Con- 
fiscated." The Mountaineer (Waynesville, N.C) 8 

July 1985: 1 + . 
"Arrington Home, 'Tired and Weak.'" Ashei»i!Ie Citizen 

13 Aug. 1985, sec. 2:9. 
"Arthur Brisbane Says Death of Rev. Andersen Caused 

by Ignorance of the Universe." Post (Big Stone 

Gap, Va.) 8 Oct. 1936: 1. 
Bach, Marcus. Strange Sects and Curious Cults. New 

York: Dodd, 1962. 
Bacon, A. M., and E. C. Parsons. "Folk-Lore from 

Elizabeth City Country, V a." journal of American 

Folklore 35 (1922): 250-327. 
Ball, Richard A. "The Southern Appalachian Folk 

Structure as a Tension Reducing Way of Life." 

Photiadis and Schwarzweller. 69-80. 
Barber, Theodore X. "The Concept of Hypnosis." 

journal of Psychology 45 (1958): 115-31. 
. "The Effects of 'Hypnosis' on Pain: A Critical 

Review of Experimental and Clinical Findings." 

Psychosomatic Medicine 25 (1963): 303-33. 
. "Hypnotizability, Suggestability, and Critical 



Review of Research Findings." Psychological Re- 
ports 14 (1964): 299-320. 



References • J 83 



Barbour, Roger W. "Reptiles of Big Black Mountain, 
Harlan County, Kentucky." Copeia 30 June 1950: 
100-107. 

Bartelman, Frank. Azusa Street. Plainheld, N.J.: Logas 
International, 1980. 

. What Really Happened at Azusa Street. 

Northridge, Calif.: Voice Christian Publication 
House, 1962. 

Bauman, Richard. "Snake Handling: Should It Be 
Banned?" Liberty 70 (1975): 2-5. 

Bean, Betty. "Acceptance, Anger Mark Funeral." 
Knoxville Journal 17 July 1991: Al, 14. 

. "Church Mum on Snakebite Death." Knox- 
ville Journal 16 July 1991: Al. 

. "Man Dies of Snakebite in Church." Knoxville 



Journals July 1991: Al, 7. 
. "Police in Dark about Snakebite Details." 

Knoxville Journal 16 July 1991: A7. 
. "Snake Handling Isn't Concern, Sheriff Says.' 



Knoxville Journal 18 July 1991: A3. 

Bellah, Robert N. "Christianity and Symbolic Real- 
ism." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 9 
(1970): 89-115. 

Berger, Joe. "Praise the Lord." Weekly World. News 22 
May 1990: 46-47. 

Best, Billy. "From Existence to Essence: An Appala- 
chian Studies Curriculum." Diss. Univ. of Massa- 
chusetts, 1973. UMI DDJ74-08578. 

Bible, Estic B. The Recollections ofEstic B. Bible. Col- 
lection of Newport, Tenn., newspaper articles, 
1972-75. Privately published by Jane Bible Henley 
and Elizabeth Bible Wiley, n.d. Burton Collection. 

Birckhead, Roy James. "A Critique of Weston LaBarre's 
They Shall Take Up Serpents: Psychology of the 
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Scott, Donald F. "Ordeal by Fire." The Psychology of 

Fire. New York: Scribner, 1974. 67-75. 
"Second Snake Taken From Colonel Bunn." Durham 

Morning Herald 9 Nov. 1947, sec. 1:1. 
"Seizure Of Snakes Fails To Stop Cult Meetings." 

Durham Morning Herald 3 Nov. 1947, sec. 1: 3. 
"Sermon on Snakes and Religion." Chattanooga News 

28 Sept. 1914:3. 
"Serpent-Handling Preacher Here, Bitten by Deadly 

Snake, Refuses Medical Attention, Says 'Faith 

Will Heal' Him of Poisonous Venom." Knoxville 

News-Sentinel 3 July 1940: 1. 
"Sheriff Released From the Hospital." The Mountaineer 

(Waynesville, N.C.) 12 Aug. 1985: 1 + . 
"Signs Following Believers." White Wing Messenger 

(Church of God of Prophesy, Cleveland, Tenn.). 

24 Nov. 1945:2,4. 
Simpkins, O Norman. An Informal, Incomplete Intro- 
duction to Appalachian Culture. Huntington, 

W.Va.: Marshall Univ. Press, 1971. 
Sims, Patsy. "Acts of Faith: The Charmed Lives of 

Snake Handlers." TDC (publication of Discovery 

Channel) May 1991:34-41. 
. Can Somebody Shout Amen? New York: St. 

Martins, 1988. 



Slater, Irwin H. "Strychnine, Picnotoxin, 

Pentylenetetrazol, and Miscellaneous Drugs." 

Drill's Pharmacology in Medicine. Ed. Joseph R. 

DiPalma. 4th ed. New York: McGraw, 1971. 

517-32. 
Smartt, Vaughn. "Snake Cult Jury Split 6-6; Mistrial 

of 12 is Expected." Chattanooga Daily Times 13 

Nov. 1947: 1-2. 
Smith, Charles R. Tongues in Biblical Perspective. 2d ed. 

Winona Lake, Ind.: BMH Books, 1973. 
Smith, Dave. "Snake Sermon." Cumberland Station. 

Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1976. 13. 
"Snake At Service Bites 3 Cultists." New York Times 6 

Aug. 1940:21. 
"Snake Bite Case Ends in Mistrial." The Birmingham 

News 14 Sept. 1961: n.p. 
"Snake Bite Faith Test Called Mockery of God." New 

York Times 13 Aug. 1934:30. 
"Snake Bite Fatal to Dolly Pond Preacher During Rite 

in Georgia." Chattanooga News-Free Press 1 3 Aug. 

1954: 1. 
"Snake Bite Is Fatal to Cultist; Another Struck Down 

by Rattler." Chattanooga Times 27 Aug. 1946: 9. 
"Snake Bite Kills Church Member." Johnson City 

(Tenn.) Press Chronicle 31 Jan. 1989: 13. 
"Snake Bite Kills Sect Member." New York Times 31 

Aug. 1955:27. 
"Snake Bites Man And Dies." New York Times 23 July 

1945:21. 
"Snake Bites Sheriff at Religious Service." Knoxville 

News-Sentinel 5 Aug. 1985: A6. 
"Snake Cult Case Called Mistrial." Chattanooga Times 

14 Nov. 1947:3. 
"Snake Cult Facing Legislative Prohibition in State." 

Louisville Courier-Journal 5 Mar. 1940, sec. 2: 1. 
"Snake Cult Opens Church on Sunday." Chattanooga 

Times 13 Dec. 1947:3. 
"Snake Cult Preacher Arrested; Refuses, Then Consents 

to Bond." Chattanooga Times 18 June 1954: 22. 
"Snake Cultist Hearing Passed Till Tomorrow." 

Chattanooga Times 24 Aug. 1948: 3. 



1 98 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



"Snake Custodian, Chided by Pastor at Farewell Demon- 
stration, Thrusts Copperhead Down Throat." Knox- 
ville News-Sentinel 25 Sept. 1939, home ed., 12. 

"Snake Defiers Jailed." New York Times 1 Aug. 1940: 18. 

"Snake Expert Warns People Preacher's Rattlers Poi- 
sonous." Tampa Morning Tribune 1 1 Mar. 1936: 7. 

"Snake Handler Answers to 'Highest Law.'" Maryville- 
Alcoa Daily Times 12 Aug. 1985: 1. 

"Snake Handler Bitten at Church Service." Knoxville 
News-Sentinel 17 June 1971: 41. 

"Snake Handler Church Burned, Sheriff Hunts Arson 
Suspects." Chattanooga News-Free Press 12 July 
1954: 1. 

"Snake Handler Didn't Pray Before Handling Rattler, 
Sister Says." News and Observer (Raleigh) 31 Aug. 
1985: A17. 

"Snake Handler Dies of Bite, As His Father-in-law 
Did." New York Times 23 Oct. 1974: 48. 

"Snake Handler Dies of Snakebite in Church." Johnson 
City (Tenn.) Press 16 July 1991: 10. 

"Snake Handler Gets Suspended Sentence." Knoxville 
News-Sentinel 4 Sept. 1985: B5. 

"Snake Handler Says 'Higher Law' Makes Him Handle 
Reptiles." Johnson City (Tenn.) Press-Chronicle 14 
Aug. 1985: 14. 

"Snake Handler Still Hospitalized." Kingsport Times- 
News 23 Nov. 1988: B3. 

"Snake Handlers Back: One Believer Bitten." 
Kingsport Times-Neu>s 18 June 1971: 1. 

"Snake Handler's Church is Burned." Chattanooga 
Times 13 July 1954:9. 

"Snake Handlers Fined $150 Each; One Appeals." The 
Birmingham News 10 May 1956: 55. 

"Snake Handlers of Georgia, Kentucky to Attend 
Trial Here; Snakes Barred." Chattanooga Times 12 
Nov. 1947: 1-2. 

"Snake Handlers Undaunted." Ashei'iile Citizen 10 
Sept. 1985: 1. 

"Snake Handling." Christian Century 102 (1985): 857. 



"Snake Handling: A Discussion of the Death of a 

Preacher Who Was Bitten." Knoxville News- 
Sentinel 8 Sept. 1985: E4. 
"Snake Handling: A Ritual as Old as the Hills." John- 
son City (Tenn.) Press-Chronicle 22 July 1973: 44. 
"Snake Handling at Church Continues." Knoxville 

News-Sentinel 18 Sept. 1939, home ed., 1 1. 
"Snake Handling Evangelist Dead from Rattler Bite." 

Dotty Times (Greeneville, Tenn.) 20 Aug. 1985: 15. 
"Snake Handling Fading." Kingsport Times-News 29 

July 1990: A7. 
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(Tenn.) Press-Chronicle 2 Nov. 1973: 2. 
"Snake Handling: Man Says N.C. Law Keeps Him 

From Practicing Religion." Newspaper article, n.d. 

Burton Collection. 
"Snake Handling Preachers May Be Returned to Jail." 

Newspaper article, n.d. Burton Collection. 
"Snake Head Torn Off to Climax Sunday Meeting at 

Ramsey." Coalfield Progress (Norton, Va.) 22 Aug. 

1935: 1. 
"Snake Kills Cultist." New York Times 26 July 1955: 12. 
"Snake Ordinance Upheld: Bunn Says He Will Take 

Issue to Federal Court." Durham Morning Herald 8 

Jan. 1949: 3. 
"Snake Power." Time. 1 Nov. 1968: 86. 
"'Snake' Preachers Released on Bond." Chattanooga 

Times 28 Sept. 1945: 10. 
"Snake Proves Faithless." Cincinnati Enquirer 16 Aug. 

1931. 
"Snake Rites Get Protest." Chattanooga News-Free 

Press 14 Aug. 1959: 1. 
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Courier-Journal 10 Sept. 1940: 7. 
"Snake Services Bring Comments." Asheville Citizen- 
Times 1 Sept. 1985: D3. 
"Snake Tests Barred to Preacher's Son." New York 

Times 2 Sept. 1934, sec. 2: 1. 
"Snake Trials ot Five Here Continued Until Oct. 28; 

Large Group in Court." Durham Morning Herald 

20 Oct. 1948, sec. 2: 1. 



References • 1 99 



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200 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



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Travis, Fred. "Bradley Baffled by Snake Problem." 
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"Trenton Snake Handler is Dead, Bitten During Ft. 
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"2 Die After Drinking Strychnine During Services at 
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"Two Snake Handlers Receive $50 Fines and Costs 
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Valentine, Charles A. Culture and Poverty: Critique 
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Vance, Paul. "A History of Serpent Handlers in 
Georgia, North Alabama, and Southeastern 
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1975. 

"Vigorous Rattler Replaces Worn-Out Copper at 

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"Virginia Snake-Handling Law To Be Tested." Moun- 
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"Walter Henry, 51, Bitten by Rattler." Chattanooga 
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202 * Serpent-Handling Believers 



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Films, Videos, and Records 



"ABC News with Peter Jennings." 15 Dec. 1986. 
Television program, 30 min. Segment on serpent 
handling in North Georgia, North Carolina, Ten- 
nessee, and West Virginia, 4 min. 

Bagwell, Wendy. Here Comes the Rattlesnakes. Caanan 
Records. Waco, Texas, FS-715, n.d. 

"Brother Roy Healing and Casting-Out-Devils." Madi- 
son, Tenn. By Eleanor Dickinson. 1980. Video, 
color, 30 min. 

Caf>e Fear. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal, 1991. 

"Carson Springs: A Decade Later." Prod. Thomas G. 
Burton and Thomas F. Headley. East Tennessee 
State Univ., 1983. Video, 3/4" U-Matic and VHS, 
29 min. 

"Chase the Devil." Channel 4 (UK). 1982. Television 
program. Segment on serpent handling. 

Dickinson, Eleanor. Southern Revival Services. Library 
of Congress, Archive of Folk Song, Audio and 
Video Tape Collection #14,079+; 1968 to present. 

Discovery Channel program. Yorkshire Television, 
1986. Feature on the Church of the Lord Jesus, 
Jolo, W.Va.. 

Faces of Death. Prod. Rosilyn T. Scott. Video. 1979. 
F.O.D. Productions. 2 min. feature. 

"False Gods: Snake Church." "A Current Affair," Fox 
Broadcasting Co. 28 June 1990. Television pro- 
gram. Segment, 8 min. 

"Fire and Serpent Handlers." Videotaped by Wayne 
Barrett. East Tennessee State Univ., Archives of 
Appalachia. Reels 134A, 134B, 3/4" U-Matic, 
black-and-white, 50 min. each. Dubbed on "Cable 
Snake Video." Burton-Headly Collection. Series 
B, Tape 30. 3/4" U-Matic and VHS, black-and- 
white, 60 min. 



References • 203 



"Following the Signs: A Way of Conflict." Prod. 

Thomas G. Burton and Thomas F. Headley. East 

Tennessee State Univ., 1987. Video, 3/4" U- 

Matic and VHS, 29 min. 
"Geraldo." Tribune Entertainment. 4 Oct. 1991. 

Television program. Interviews with Dewey 

Chaftn and Anna Prince. 
Hearst Collection, UCLA Film and Television 

Archive. General newsreel footage of religious 

serpent handlers. 
"The Holiness People of West Virginia." By Eleanor 

Dickinson. 1978. Video, 30 min. 
"Holy Ghost People." Prod. Blair Boyd and Peter 

Adair. Adair Films. CRM/McGraw-Hill Films, 

1968. Video, 3/4" U-Matic, black-and-white, 53 

min. 
"I Believe: Religion in the Tennessee Valley." 

WDEF-TV, Chattanooga, 1989. Video, VHS, 3 

min. 
The Jolo Serpent Handlers. By Karen Kramer. Karen 

Kramer Films, New York, 1977. Film, 16 mm, 40 

min. 
"Lifesense — Snakes." BBC Natural History Unit, 

1991. Television program. Feature on the use of 

serpents in the Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo, 

W.Va. 
"The Lord's Supper, Footwashing, and Baptism in the 

Holston River." By Eleanor Dickinson. 1980. 

Video, color, 8 min. 
"Music in the Southern Appalachian Mountains." 

By Eleanor Dickinson. 1978. Video, 30 min. 
Night of the Hunter. With Richard Chamberlain, Diana 

Scarwid, and Burgess Meredith. Made for ABC- 
TV Production, 1991. 120 min. 
Paramount newsreel. Unreleased footage from the 

1950s with George Hensley's name on the index. 

Film Libraries, Inc., Sherman Grinberg, New 

York. 
The People Who Take Up Serpents. By Gretchen 

Robinson. Independent Southern Films, 

Greenville, S.C., 1979. Film, 16 mm. 



"Poison Pulpit." WSB-TV, Atlanta, 1991. Television 
program on services at the Church ot the Lord 
Jesus, Rome, Georgia, including interviews with 
Carl Porter and Junior McCormick. 

Program on the Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo, W.Va. 
WJLA-TV, Washington. Television program, n.d. 

"Real Time in West Virginia with Four Holiness 
People." By Eleanor Dickinson. 1978. Video, 
black-and-white, 35 min. 

"Revival!" By Eleanor Dickinson. 1980. Video, black- 
and-white and color, 30+ min. 

"Saga of the Serpent Handlers." WVLC-TV, Charles- 
ton, W.Va., 1981. Three television programs. 
Prod, with Mary Lee Daugherty by West Virginia 
Library Commission Video Services, Charleston. 

"Sally Jessy Raphael." Multimedia Entertainment. 
NBC-TV. 23 Mar. 1992. Television program. 
Interviews with Darlene Summerford and sister- 
in-law Charlotte. 

The Serpent and the Rainbow. Dir. Wes Craven. 
Universal, 1988. 

"The Serpent Handlers: Jolo, West Virginia." 

Prod. H. Thomas Mullis and Edward D. Jervey. 
Bureau of Telecommunications, Radford Univ., 
1988. 3/4" U-Matic. 

"Six Short Tapes on Various Aspects of the Revival 
Movement." By Eleanor Dickinson. 1980. Video, 
black-and-white and color, 30+ min. 

"Snake Handlers Digest." By Allen Muse and Milton 
McClurken. WTVF-TV, Nashville, July 1973. 
Television program, 15 min. 

"Snakehandling O'Sheas." Saturday Night Live. 
Television program, 5 min. Satiric segment. 

"Test of Faith." WWVA-TV, Blueheld, West Virgina. 
Three-part television series. 

"They Shall Take Up Serpents." Montage. Series. Prod. 
Scott Siegler. WKYC-TV, Cleveland, Ohio. Film, 
16 mm, 24 min. 

They Shall Take Up Serpents. Prod. Thomas G. Burton 
and Jack Schrader. East Tennessee State Univ., 
1973. Film, 16 mm, 19 min. 



204 • Serpent-Handling Believers 



True Adventure. Prod. Bill Burrud. Television program 
from series. Prod. 1960-61; includes newsreel 
footage of handling fire by Raymond Hays. Burton 
Collection. 

True Believers. KP1X, San Francisco, 1990. Television 
program. Segment on serpent handling, 6 min., 
30 sec. 

"What's Up America?" Showtime. Syndicated series. 
East Tennessee State Univ., Archives of Appala- 
chia. Burton-Headley Collection. Series B, Tape 
29, Accession #227. Video, 3/4" U-Matic, 12 min. 

Legal References 

State Codes 

Florida State Codes 372.86, .88-91, .912, .921. 1971. 

Georgia State Code. 27-54. 1968. 

Kentucky State Code. 437.060. 1940. 

North Carolina State Codes. 14-416-418, 421-422. 

1949; 14-419-420. 1981. 
Tennessee State Code. 39-17-101. 1989. 
Virginia State Code. 18.2-313. 1950, Rev. 1960 and 

1975. 



Court Cases 

Harden v. State of Tennessee. 216 S.W. 2d 708. 

Supreme Court of Tennessee. 1948. 
Harris v. Harris. 343 So. 2d 762. Supreme Court of 

Mississippi. 1972. 
Hill v. State. 88 So. 2d 880. Court of Appeals of 

Alabama. 1956. 
Kirk v. Commonwealth. 44 S.E. 2d 409. Supreme 

Court of Appeals of Virginia. 1947. 
Lawson et al. v. Commonwealth. 164 S.W. 2d 972. 

Court of Appeals of Kentucky. 1942. 
Sherbert v. Verner et al., Members of South Carolina 

Employment Security Commission, et al. 

374 U.S. Appeal from the Supreme Court of 

South Carolina. 1963. 
State of Tennessee v. Pack. Court of Appeals for 

Tennessee. Eastern Section. 1974- 
State of Tennessee v. Pack. 527 S.W. 2d 99. Supreme 

Court of Tennessee. 1975. 
State v. Massey et al. 51 S.E. 2d 179. Supreme Court 

of North Carolina. 1949. 




Index 



Page numbers in italics refer to illustrations 

aberrant behavior, 128, 129, 179 

African American, 166 

Alabama Court of Appeals, 82 

Alther, Lisa, 1, 162 

Ambrose, Kenneth, 166, 170 

angels, 17 

anointment (anointing), 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 37, 38, 60, 70, 86, 94, 

113, 121, 122, 133, 139-44, 162, 164 
Apostolic Church of God, Greeneville, Tenn., 84, 102 
archetypal experience, 135 
Arrington,Jack,85, 106, 108 
austerity, 173-75, 1 76; see also dtess 
autopsy, 84 

Ball, Alfred, 75, 76, 78, 79, 79, 81, 84, 86, 94 

baptism: Holy Ghost, 6, 7, 36, 139, 151; water, 17, 21, 92-93, 94, 120 

Baptist, 7, 93, 99, 112, 150, 151 

Barbee, Berlin, 158 

Bell, Berkeley, District Attorney, 84 

Bettis, Perry, 18, 21, 37, 49, 50, 53, 58, 85, 88, 166, 166 

Bible, 6, 20, 25, 26, 31, 32, 45-46, 59, 71, 72, 85, 86, 94, 95, 96, 97, 

99, 100, 111, 112, 116, 117, 119, 120, 125, 126, 133, 135, 151, 

171-75,179 
Bishop, V. A., 164 
Blankenship, Lue, 23 
Boisen, Anton, 132-33, 174 
Braddam, Mark, 50, 52 
Brouayer, George T., 67 
Brown, Fred, 3-4, 133 
Brown, James, 41 
Brown, John Wayne, 95, 108, 129 
brush arbor, 33, 35, 38, 40, 74, 120, 121, 122, 124, 125 

casting out demons, 17, 35, 70; see also demons, evil spirits 

Catholic, 87 

Chafin (m. Hagerman), Columbia, 88 

Chafin, Dewey, 2, 9, 29, 30-31, 88, 145 

children, 63-64, 68, 140, 166, 168, 173 

Christ. See Jesus 

Christian, Roy Lee "Bootie," J 46 

Chtistian Union, 6 

Church of God, 6, 7, 9, 24, 34, 35, 36, 38, 40, 42, 61, 65, 69, 70, 71, 

72, 151, 153, 153, 155, 169 
Church of God, Cleveland, Ohio, 42 
Church of God, Dividing Ridge, Tenn., 153 
Church of God, Owl Holler, Tenn., 151 

Church of God of Prophecy, 61; see also Tomlinson Church of God 
Church of God of Prophecy, Birchwood, Tenn., 55 
Church of Jesus Christ, Baxtet, Ky., 8, 15, 16, 129, 131, 178 
Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following, Bitchwood, Tenn., 166 
Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, Kingston, Ga., 27 
Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo, W.Va., 4, 5, 19, 20, 21, 29, 58, 145, 

147, 174 
Click, Andrew, 93 



206 • Index 



codes (statutes), 75-76, 81, 157, 203-4 

Collier, Gale, 82, 84 

communion (Lord's Supper), 21, 24, 170 

Conn, Charles W., 6, 34, 56 

constitutionality, 80, 82 

Coots, Tommy, 22 

court cases, 204; Harden, 75, 80-81, 82; Kirk v. Commonwealth, 

81-82; Masse?, 82; Pack, 80, 82 
Crahtree, Lou, 5 
Crawford, Byron, 27, 28, 171 

Daugherty, Mary Lee, 134, 165 

Davis, Richard, 87, 127, 132 

death(s), 10, 27, 28, 31, 38, 46, 54, 60, 74-75, 81, 82, 85, 95, 102, 

116, 124-25, 126, 132, 136, 151, 156, 158, 160, 161, 163, 164, 

166 
Defriese, Garland, 50 

demons, 17, 89, 135; see also casting out demons, evil spirits 
Denkins, Cecil, 64, 65, 158 
deprivation theory, 132-33 

Devil, 31,69, 89, 124, 128, 141, 152, 175; see also Satan 
Dickerson, W. L, 166 
divorce, 21, 43, 97 
Dolley Pond Church of God with Signs Following, Birchwood, 

Tenn., 21, 48, 50, 52, 55,55,60,64, 74,77, 78,80, 157, 172, 

177 
dress, 97, 119, 170, 174-75; see also austerity 
drinking deadly things (poison, lye), 17,28,33,97, 101, 109, 110, 

118, 119, 120, 121, 124, 135, 163, 163, 164, 175; see also 

strychnine 
DuBose, Mike, 4 

East Chattanooga Church of God, Chattanooga, Tenn., 154 

East Cleveland Church of God, Cleveland, Tenn., 153, 154 

East Pineville Church of God, Pineville, Ky., 45, 46, 155, 156 

education, 169 

electroencephalograph, 141-44 

Elkins, Barbara, 4, 9, 18, 58, 88, 159 

Elkins, Boh, 9, 88, 145 

Ellis, J. B, 7, 38,69 

emotional release, 178-79 

entertainment, 176 

epiphany, 1 34 

Evangel (Evening Light and Church of God Evangel), 9, 35, 38, 41, 61- 

73, 152, 164 
evil spirits, 17, 30; see also demons, spirits 
exhibitionism, 175, 176 

faith, 26, 30,45,65,73, 102, 171 

Falwell, Jerry, 133-34 

fatalism, 179 

films, videos, and records, 202 

fire handling, 14, 17, 60, 64, 66, 69, 70, 71, 72, 99, 101, 102, 106, 

109, 113, 119, 121, 164-65, 169, 173 
First Amendment to the Constitution, 77 



Fleenot, Gerald, 28 

foot washing, 21,24 

Ford, Lewis R, 48, 50, 52, 54,74-75, 157, 168 

Fotd, Walt, 52 

Free Holiness, 24 

Freudian perspective, 128, 129 

Fritts, Charley, 53 

fundamentalism, 133, 135 

Gentry, W. S., 152 

Gerrard, Louise, 128 

Gerrard, Nathan, 128, 130 

gifts (spiritual), 7, 31, 69, 140, 173 

glossolalia. See speaking in tongues 

Grant, Harvey, 14, 36, 37, 58, 88 

Grasshopper Church of God, Birchwood, Tenn., 32, 49, 151 

Gregg, Marvin "Bud," 13, 17,24-25,26,28,85, 139, 166 

Hagerman, Jeff, 18 

Haley brothers, 114 

Haroen. See court cases 

Harden, Allie, 77 

Harden, Enoch, 52 

Harden, Ida, 77 

Harden, Minnie Parker, 53, 54, 60 

Harden, Tom, 49, 52, 54, 55, 75, 77, 157 

Harris, Les, 1 1 3 

Harris, Pauline, 113 

Hams, R. W., 73 

Haynes, M. S.,62,70, 152 

Hays, Raymond "Buck," 48, 50, 52-53 

Headley, Thomas, 141, 181 

Headrick, William, 63 

healing the sick, 17,64-65,69,70,73,75, 100, 117, 119, 124, 135, 

139,146, 151, 173 
Heath, S. J., 72 
hedge, 28 

Helton, Bruce, 16,88, 178 
Henry, Grady, 141 
Henry, Justice Joe, 79, 80, 84 
Henry, Walter, 52, 75 
Henry, William, 52 
Hensley, Amanda Wininger, 34, 34, 36, 41, 42-43, 47, 48, 70, 149, 

150, 151, 154, 154, 155 
Hensley (m. Brown), Avalina Jane, 41, 42, 43, 48, 149, 157 
Hensley (m. Weaver), Bertha, 42, 42, 44. 45, 149, 154, 155 
Hensley, Emanual, 42, 149 

Hensley (m. Potts), Emma Jean, 45,47,47, 58, 59, 150, 155, 155 
Hensley (m. Stokes), Esther Lee, 47-48, 47, 153, 157 
Hensley, Faith Lillian, 44, 47, 54, 153, 155 
Hensley, Franklin, 47, 54 
Hensley, Geotge Went, 7, 9, 10, 32-60, 33. 39, 42, 43, 47. 48, 50, 

53, 57, 58, 61, 62-63, 65, 69-70, 73, 75, 76, 149-58, 150, 154, 

155 



Index • 207 



Hensley, Inez Riggs (Hutcheson), 53, 54-55, 149, 157 
Hensley, Irene Klunzinger, 43, 44, 46-48, 47, 56, 150, 154, 155, 

155, 156, 157 
Hensley, James Roscoe, 42-43, 53-54, 149, 150, 153, 153, 154, 157 
Hensley, Jessie Franklin, 151 

Hensley, Loyal, 41, 44, 45, 46-47, 47, 149, 154, 155, 156, 157 
Hensley (m. Harden), Rosa Frances, 48, 56, 151 
Hensley, Sally Moore (Norman), 56, 158 
Hensley, Susan Jane, 42, 149 
Hensley (m. Caldwell), Vinerte, 47, 47, 155 
Hi-way Holiness Church of God, Fort Wayne, Ind., 165, 167, 176 
Hicks, B. L, 73 
Holiness, 6, 21, 45, 93, 99, 100, 102, 104, 108, 130, 133, 150, 155, 

169, 174, 176 
Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name, Carson Springs, Tenn., 1, 3, 

75, 86, 90. 92, 93, 94-95, 104, 141 , 159, 163, 175 
Holiness Tabernacle, Sneedville, Tenn., 86 
Hollins, Lydia Elkins, 5, 9, 19, 88, 126, 161 
Hollins, William, 16 
Holy Ghost (Holy Spirit, Spirit of God), 6, 7, 1 3, 17, 20, 21, 25, 26, 

28, 33, 34, 35, 36, 38, 40, 63, 65, 71, 72, 85, 89, 95, 111, 135, 

139-40,151, 153, 168, 175 
homosexuality, 97 
Horton, George B., 73 

House of Prayer in Jesus Name, Momstown, Tenn., 85, 168 
Humphrey, Richard, 133 
Hutton, Brother, 50 
hypnosis, 144, 162 

Jackson, Clint, 75 

Jackson, Jim, 45 

Jackson, Joe G, 157 

Jesus, 6, 18, 19,20,21,37,66,69,72,85,93,96, 104, 108, 111, 113, 

115, 116, 121, 124, 128, 134, 135, 139, 175 
Jesus Name, 20-21,24, 49 
Jews, 87 

Johnson, Mrs. Ray, 161 
Johnson, Ray, 23, 161 

Kane, Steven, 130, 161, 165, 170 

Kennedy, Jenette, 17 

Kirk, Anna, 75, 81 

Kirk, Harvey O., 81-82 

Kirk v. Commonwealth. See court cases 

kiss (holy kiss), 175 

Ku Klux Klan, 53 

La Barre, Weston, 128, 162 

Larr, Jimmy, 8 

laying hands. See healing the sick 

Lemons, M. S., 69 

Letsinger, M. W., 154 

Lincoln Avenue Church of God, Newport, Tenn., 91 

Litzinger, M. W., 42, 155 

Long, Austin, 88 

Lotd Jesus, 135; see also Jesus 



McCallister, Gracie, 131 

McCallister, Ray, 18 

McCoy, Tim, 17, 146, 177 

McGhee Street Church of God, Knoxville, Tenn., 156 

McLain.T. L., 152 

marriages, 21, 97 

Massey. See court cases 

Methodist, 93 

Miller, James, 7, 9, 61 

Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Test, 128-29 

miracles, 31,69, 70, 71,72, 113, 118, 121, 125, 133, 173 

Morrow, Jimmy, 85, 93, 141 

Morrow, Luther, 49, 50, 52 

Mulkey, N. P., 62, 152 

Muncy, Larry, 18 

music, 112, 119, 145-48, 176, 177, 179 

New South Chattanooga Church ot God, Chattanooga, Tenn., 55 
North Carolina Supreme Court, 82 
numbers of serpent handlers, 165, 168 

ordination, 96 

Owl Holler, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 41,42 

Pack. See court cases 

Pack, Buford, 75,94,95,96, 163 

Pack, Liston, 24, 30, 75, 76, 78, 79, 79, 81, 84, 86-87, 88, 89-97, 90, 

91,93, 105, 106, 136, 140-44, 159, 162,170, 175 
Pack, Mary Kate (Williams), 91 , 141 
parapsychology, 162 
Parker, B. A., 50 
Parker, "Boots," 48, 50, 172 
Parker, Maggie, 67, 77 

Parker, Minnie, 50, 51; see also Minnie Parker Harden 
Pentecost, 65, 139 

Pentecostal, 6, 7, 21, 24, 130, 134, 169 
Pentecostal Chutch of God, Harlan County, Ky., 62 
Pentecostal Holiness, 21, 130, 133, 173 

Pine Mountain Church ot God, Harlan County, Ky., 46, 156 
Porter, Carl, 17,88 
Porter, Carolyn, 127 
Posey, Jim, 50,52 
Prince, Anna, 5, 10-11,25-26,88,99, 100, 108-25, 109, 113, 118, 

123, 140 
Prince, Charles Herman, 13-14, 24-27, 82, 83, 84-85, 88, 93, 97- 

108,98, 101, 103, 104, 105, 107, 109-11, 114, 116-17, 118, 

119, 123, 124-25, 132, 141, 163, 164, 171 
Prince, Ulysses Gordon, 24, 85, 97,99-100, 109-25, 109, 1/2, 113, 

1/8, 123 
prophecy, 25, 140, 173 
psychical, 164 
psychokinesis, 162 
psychological perspective, 128-30, 135, 136, 164 

raising the dead, 14, 33, 69, 70, 108, 124; see also death(s) 
Ramsey, Mrs. Joe, 77 



208 • Index 



Ramsey, Reece, 53, 65, 67, 77, 158 

Reece, Jim, 74 

Reed, Carl, 82, 102, 110, 124 

regeneration. See saved 

religious freedom (liberry), 77, 80, 82, 108 

repenrance, 18 

Ricker, Clyde, 168 

Rowe, Charles, 17 

sacrament, 134 

sanctification, 6, 7, 33, 34, 36 

Sand Mountain, Ala., 7 

Satan, 66, 70, 134; see also Devil 

saved (salvation from sins, remission of sins, regeneration), 6, 7, 18, 

71,72,91,92, 121, 136 
Saylor, Arnold, 88, 165 
scorpions, 101, 119 
sexual implicarions, 128, 140 
Shepherd, Judge George, 79, 86 
Sherbert, Gene, 103 
Shorr, Verlin, 18 
signs (sign-followers, sign-following), 6, 8, 10, 11, 26, 27, 33, 35, 39, 

60, 62, 64-65, 69, 70, 71, 72, 74, 85, 86, 90, 1 13, 1 18, 141 , 

162, 166, 168, 170 
Skelton, Harry, 75 

snake-venom poisoning, 160; see ako venom 
Sociological perspective, 130, 132-33, 135, 136 
South Chattanooga Church of God, Chattanooga, Tenn., 158 
South Cleveland Tabernacle, Cleveland, Tenn., 35, 152 
speaking in tongues (glossolalia), 6, 7, 17, 35, 36, 39, 40, 64, 65, 70, 

96, 111,113, 130, 139, 140, 173 
spirits, 108, 135, 173; see also demons, evil spirits 
Stacy, Chief Justice, 82 
Stokes (m. Simmons), La Creta, 47 



strychnine, 27, 28, 30, 31,95, 102, 104, 106, 109, 111, 126, 163-64; 

see also drinking deadly things 
Swiney, Henry, 7, 27, 28, 58, 86, 88 

tempting God (tempting the Lord), 45, 97 

Tennessee Courr of Appeals, 76, 78-82, 95 

Tennessee Supreme Court, 75, 76, 78-81, 82, 84, 95 

The Way, 35 

Tomlinson, A. J., 33, 38,69-72, 152, 153 

Tomlinson, Homer, 33, 34-36, 38-39 

Tomlinson, Justice, 80 

Tomlinson Church of God, 54; see also Church of God of Prophecy 

traditional perspective, 134, 135, 137, 176 

Trinity, 20, 21 

Undivided Church of God, Chattanooga, Tenn., 55, 158 
United States Supreme Court, 80 

venom, 161, 162; see also snake venom poisoning 
Virginia State Court of Appeals, 81-82 
visions, 65, 124, 125 

Weaver, Alfred D„ 10, 46, 74, 156 

Wesleyan, 6 

White Oak Mountain, 32, 35, 37, 151 

Williams, Allen, 85, 108, 126 

Williams, Jimmy Ray, 27, 75, 85, 91 , 94-95, 96, 126, 163 

Williams, Jimmy Ray, Jr., 85, 91 , 161 

Williams, Joyce, 126 

Williams, Luther, 124 

Wilson, Hobart, 52, 75 

women, 95-96, 97 

Woodruff, Michael L, 141, 142 

Young, Dora, 52 



Serpent-Handling Believers was designed and composed by Kay Jursik ar The University of Tennessee Press on the Apple 
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